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Homophobia and Hurling

Posted on 5th November 2009. One Comment

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Donnchadh O’Conaill considers the public reaction to openly gay sportsmen…

“…while racial attitudes in football have shifted appreciably in the past two decades, homophobia remains very much alive and well…”

giant_pandasGay athletes are rare enough that, like a species of tiny prehistoric humanoids or a pair of mating pandas, their discovery constitutes a news item in and of itself. This is regrettable, but it is perhaps not that surprising. To take the most obvious example, while racial attitudes in football have shifted appreciably in the past two decades, homophobia remains very much alive and well. The tragic story of Britain’s first (and so-far only) openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu, who was heavily criticised by other players and disowned by his brother John, stands as a warning to what anyone following in his footsteps might have to go through.

              Two weeks ago, another high-profile sportsman in these islands came out (http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/general/others/hurling-ireland-stunned-by-gay-star-1806872.html) The public reaction in Ireland to Dónal Óg Cusack, the Cork hurling goalkeeper, announcing he was gay has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. The difference between his case and Fashanu’s is partly down to the passing of time. But the difference between the sports played by the two men may also be relevant.

Few people reading this will have anything more than a hazy awareness of0000e7fe10dr hurling, or indeed of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) which administers this sport and gaelic football. If hurling is known at all in England, it’s as that crazy Irish game where players attempt to beat each other senseless with sticks (They don’t – usually. See here for details: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fww0aGk24VI.) The GAA received a certain amount of coverage over here in 2007, when rugby and football were allowed to be played on the Hallowed Turf ™ of Croke Park. This decision may have been a step forward for the GAA, but it would have confirmed for many people its role as a conservative, nationalist organisation, albeit one belatedly entering the twenty-first century. Given this, it seems odd that one of its most high-profile players should have chosen to come out.  This incongruity perhaps fuelled some of the coverage Cusack has received, including an interview on Channel 4 news and, in a twist which almost eludes the adjective ‘bizarre’, a twitter from Perez Hilton. (I would have happily nominated the LA gossip columnist and the goalkeeper for Cloyne and Cork as the two people on this planet whose paths were least likely to ever cross. The times they truly are a-changin’.)

“…the relationship between players, supporters and teams in gaelic games is appreciably different to that in any professional sport…”

ronan_1370483cHowever, it may be that it is the community-based nature of the GAA, which in the past made it so insular and conservative, which helped Cusack to come out. The GAA is strictly amateur, a situation which is unlikely to ever change (if professionalism didn’t happen in the gaudy Celtic Tiger years, it’s unlikely to occur in the current Celtic Sloth interregnum). The vast majority of players represent the parish or county they grew up in. They don’t leave their community, either to play for another team or to move to a gated mansion in Cheshire. As a result, the relationship between players, supporters and teams in gaelic games is appreciably different to that in any professional sport, with the possible exception of rugby league. For example, in 2007 the wife of Kilkenny substitute goalkeeper James McGarry died in a car-crash the week before the All-Ireland quarter finals were due to be played. In response, the GAA postponed all the quarter-finals, including games in which Kilkenny were not playing. This move wasn’t just widely applauded; it was seen as the obvious thing to do. It is scarcely conceivable that something similar would happen in, say, the Champions League.

This tight link to the community may have helped to facilitate recent events in the organisation. In the last decade, the Cork hurling panel have gone on strike three times to demand better organisation, facilities and management. Strikes are certainly not the norm in the GAA, and the actions of the Cork hurlers were bitterly resisted in more traditional quarters, but the players were arguably empowered by their sport’s amateur and community ethos. The responses available to a dissatisfied professional athlete, such as asking for a transfer, were effectively unavailable to them. Furthermore, most people could see that the strikes were motivated more for a concern with the well-being of the sport in Cork than out of purely personal interest, a judgement that would have been harder to make if the individuals concerned had large fortunes riding on the outcome.

“It’s not at all clear that a professional footballer or rugby player would be treated with the same degree of respect if he came out..”

This links back to Cusack in two ways. As the spokesman of the Cork hurlers00019ded189r during the three strikes, he had clearly established his credentials as an independent thinker and a leader, surviving the kind of personal pressure which few athletes ever experience. This didn’t make coming out any less of a risk for him, but he must have had a pretty good idea that he could cope with it. Furthermore, the community basis of the GAA, which in the past would have made it far more difficult for any player outside the norm to fit in, seems to have worked in his favour. Because he plays with club and county he grew up with, and remains a member of that community, it is much harder to dismiss him as not ‘one of us’, in the way in which a wealthy Premiership footballer might be regarded. In his various interviews in the past two weeks, Cusack has come across as normal, surprisingly so for the more traditional element of the GAA’s support, who would not necessarily be au fait with the diversity of gay lifestyles and experiences and were half-expecting him to morph into a cross between Graham Norton and the ‘cute one’ in a boyband. It’s not at all clear that a professional footballer or rugby player would be treated with the same degree of respect if he came out, even though attitudes towards homosexuality in society as a whole have changed in recent decades. A player making this announcement could presumably count on the support of their club and their fellow professionals, but it remains to be seen whether they would be accepted by the general sol_campbell_1241269csporting public. The kind of abuse experienced by, for example, Sol Campbell, suggests that the reaction might be hostile (the chants directed at Campbell may be motivated by his supposed treachery in various transfers, but that the weapon of choice is explicit homophobia tells its own story). Perhaps something which professional sport has sacrificed is respect: respect for the club traditions which millionaire players so often flout, and the respect which supporters feel free to withhold from those supposedly representing them (or, more often, their opponents). This erosion of mutual respect may not be necessary or irrevocable, but when it comes to openly gay athletes, it may be that professional sport could learn from some of its amateur cousins.

Donnchadh O’Conaill

One Comment »

  • David said:

    Is there anything more homoerotic than a Durham rugby social?