Rugby legend Gareth Thomas goes public about his private life

Gareth Thomas, the most-capped player in Welsh rugby union history, talked openly about his homosexuality in an interview with the Daily Mail on Saturday. He is the first famous rugby union player to do so, joining a handful of athletes from other sports in recent years.

Thomas, one of the legends of modern rugby, is close to the end of his playing career and says that he believes the time is right to be open because attitudes have changed. One of his objectives is to provide reassurance for young people who are going through the same emotional trauma that he did as a teenager. He has suffered a broken marriage and apparently contemplated suicide in his attempt to live a double life.

Following the publication of the interview, Thomas has received immediate backing from many in the rugby world and the media response has been universally sympathetic. Sir Clive Woodward, who appointed Gareth Thomas as captain during the British and Irish Lions Tour in 2005, told the BBC that the player’s sexuality was irrelevant to his achievements in rugby. Thomas himself reports that coaches and team-mates in whom he had confided were very supportive.

Like several other male team sports, including football and American football, rugby union has always had a macho, heterosexual reputation reinforced by a predominantly male fan base. In contrast to say entertainers and politicians, it has been completely taboo for players to talk openly about being gay. In fact there have been more sportswomen than men known publicly to be homosexual. One reason for this may be that the best known female athletes tend to come from individual rather than team sports, which have a very different audience.

Commentators in the Independent on Sunday suggest that it is the potential backlash from fans which prevents any gay footballers from speaking publicly rather than the response from their employers or team-mates. It seems more likely that a retired player or somebody close to the end of his career would go public than a younger player who is still making his way in the sport. Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay professional footballer, tragically committed suicide in 1998, eight years after making the revelation in a newspaper interview. 

Other athletes may now have the confidence to take the lead from Gareth Thomas having seen the positive public response, although it will of course depend on their personal circumstances. There will be a major news story when the first big name footballer says that he is gay but the media interest will surely diminish once a small number have spoken publicly.

Without wanting to trivialise what could be a very difficult emotional dilemma, there is a real opportunity in the next few days for a footballer to make headlines.

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