We ask a lot of sports. It's not enough that sports entertain and enthrall us; we insist upon freighting them with baggage they can sometimes barely sustain. The games become a mirror for society at large. Which is another way of saying that you may measure a society by the games it plays and the way it plays them. The journey from the Negro leagues to Jackie Robinson or from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali to, more recently, Michael Jordan and, despite his recent disgrace, Tiger Woods, is, in one sense, a voyage along the path of racial reconciliation in American society as a whole.
Rugby is to Wales what football is to Texas. It is a sporting religion and Saturday is the day of holy obligation.
But if sport has sometimes led the way in matters of race, when it comes to sexuality, it has been outpaced by developments in wider society. The locker-room may be a post-racial environment, but it is not a post-sexual one.
Recent developments in Britain and Ireland, however, suggest that this may be changing. Last week, Gareth Thomas, the most capped Welshman of all time and the man who led Wales in 2005 to its first Grand Slam triumph in more than 25 years, went public with his sexuality, announcing that he is gay.
Rugby is to Wales what football is to Texas. It is a sporting religion and Saturday is the day of holy obligation. Rugby is a hard game for hard men in which players are, in a literal sense, expected to lay their bodies on the line for their teammates. Weakness, whether physical or mental, is quickly punished.
For years now, there have been gay rugby teams—for example, the Washington Renegades in D.C.—but Thomas is the first high-profile professional player to make a public declaration of his homosexuality. Or, to put it another way, Thomas came out as a leading rugby player who happens to be gay rather than a gay rugby player.
Thomas admitted that he had both hidden and suppressed his sexuality since he was a teenager. “I could never accept it, because I knew I would never be accepted as a gay man and still achieve what I wanted to achieve in the game” he told the Daily Mail last weekend.
For years Thomas feared that revealing his secret life would ruin him. His desire to suppress his sexuality—to be one of the boys just like all the other lads—led him to compromises that, now he has revealed them, seem impossibly poignant. The most significant of these was his marriage: “The craziest thing about Jemma is that I genuinely did love her,” he said. “She was the nicest, most caring, understanding, prettiest girl I had ever met. It was such a confusing time because I had amazingly strong feelings for her, yet I knew I had taken who I was and put it in a little ball and pushed it in a corner. She took all of me, except that little ball, which was waiting to leak out at any time.”
Throughout his career, Thomas made secret trips to gay bars, normally when playing away matches in London. “Cheating on Jemma made me feel horrible and guilty. Every time it happened, I promised myself, ‘Never again’, but it was something I felt I needed to do to survive. Sometimes I felt so alone and depressed. I’ve stood on so many cliff edges. I used to go to the cliffs overlooking the beach near our cottage in St. Brides Major and just think about jumping off and ending it all.”
The picture Thomas reveals is a portrait of a man tormented by his own identity. The wonder is not that he kept his secret so long, but that he has revealed it at all. He told his wife he was gay shortly after she had suffered her third miscarriage. “One night, on impulse, I just said, ‘I can’t lie to you any more, and I’ve got to tell you that I’m gay. She is the nicest person in the world and tried to be understanding, but of course she was angry and upset. We were both in tears.
The breaking point came for Thomas in the aftermath of his separation from Jemma and a brutal 29-29 draw with Australia in Cardiff in 2006. "Scott Johnson (at that time the Welsh coach) came up to me in the dressing room for a chat and I just broke down in tears.
“He said, ‘What's up?’ I said, ‘Me and Jemma have split,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, what's happened?’ Then he said, ‘I know what’s happened, I know what it is.’
This week, Johnson said "The reality is we have a brave individual who is a rugby player and a human being. I’m very happy for the kid, because right now Gareth is free, the way it should be, just like all of us. I’m privileged to have been part of that."
When Thomas came off the bench for Cardiff against Toulouse in a European Cup match on Saturday, he was greeted with applause. The rugby world's reaction bears witness to the old adage that while soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. the reaction to Thomas's revelations, like that afforded the Irish hurling star, Donal Og Cusack who came out this summer, is that there has been almost no reaction at all. Both Thomas and Cusack worried that they might not be accepted; each man's revelations have been greeted with a collective shrug. The contrast between the acceptance of Thomas's sexuality and the homophobic abuse directed at (heterosexual) soccer stars in Europe is stark. At present, no leading soccer player in Britain has come out as gay.
Dai Young, Thomas's coach at the Cardiff Blues put rugby's view well: "It's not a big deal. It's 2009," he said. "Why are we making a big deal of it? It's irrelevant. From our point of view, we are 100 percent behind Gareth. We are totally supportive of him. He's a top man and whatever he does in his private life is just that—it's his private life."
Perhaps this should not surprise us too much. If gay men and women can—and do—serve openly in the British Army and the Royal Navy then mere sport can surely cope with the confirmation of an obvious truth: Gay men play sports too and can play it well.
That being so—and since Thomas, unlike the former NBA player John Amaechi—has come out while still an active player, the question shifts across the Atlantic and becomes this: Who will be the first NFL star to acknowledge their homosexuality while still on the field?
That man will, like Thomas, be hailed—and rightly so—for his bravery but like the Welshman he may also be gratifyingly surprised by the response he receives. The last taboo is not much of a taboo at all and if rugby, with all its camaraderie, martial spirit and shared post-match baths, can demonstrate this then so can football.
The world has changed even if sport is still playing catch-up. It's about time, perhaps, that it did.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.