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17th Apr 2018

Nigel Owens: ‘I don’t think football will be homophobic when the first player comes out’

The ref said he understands why gay players keep their sexuality a secret

James Dawson

Rugby Union’s leading referee has described how his own coming out means he can understand the hesitance of men in the top tiers of football to follow suit.

Professional rugby referee Nigel Owens has shared his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality during an appearance on Unfiltered with James O’Brien and explained why he feels openly gay players have yet to become a fixture in the top tiers of English football.

Owens came out almost a decade ago, receiving a near-unanimously supportive reaction from rugby union fans, however, he said he understood why gay footballers currently chose to keep their sexuality a secret.

The Welsh referee said that he feels a “minority of bad people” in the terraces tarnish the overall reputation of the game and prevent football players being willing to admit their sexuality publicly.

“I think there is a minority of bad people in rugby, as there is a minority of bad people in all walks of life. But, being the massive, global sport that football is, the minority has a bigger voice,” he said.

“I’m not a mad football fan, but I enjoy watching football and I know a lot of football supporters who are brilliant people. But what rugby does have [that football doesn’t], is that spectators can sit next to each other in the stadium, support opposing teams, enjoy a beer and also enjoy each others company.

“If you think about how football has changed from the 70s and 80, with the riots and racism, it’s in a much better place [now]. But it still has a lot to do before spectators from opposition teams can sit next to each other – and it still has that element of a minority within it.

“Rugby has it as well – it’s creeping in and sometimes in games you’ll have a scuffle between people – so what rugby has to do is maintain those values of respect and football needs to address [those problems]. I think once football does address that then people in the sport will find it easier to be themselves.”

Owens at Buckingham Palace after receiving an MBE in 2016 (Credit: Getty Images)

Whilst speaking on the show, Nigel also shared his struggle as a young man in rural Wales coming to terms with his sexuality, including surviving a suicide attempt at the age of 26.

And, though the now 46-year-old believes that a change in the culture around football would make it easier for a player to come out, he does not feel it’s the only contributing factor to the absence of gay footballers in the Premier League.

He added: “What people don’t realise is that – as a sportsperson, in particular – when I was going through that difficult time in my 20s, in dealing with who I was and what I was going to do about it, I could have never come out in that period because I was accepting it myself.

“And, when people say ‘why isn’t anybody else out in football, then, why isn’t anybody else out in rugby?’, it’s because a lot of [players] are probably dealing with their sexuality themselves like I was. And until they can accept that themselves then there’s no way they can come out.

“So, yes, the environment will enable you to accept who you are sooner, but I was fighting against being gay until I was 26 years old. Until I nearly lost my life and it made me finally realise I hadn’t a choice. So that is an issue as well.”

Owens refereeing a match between the All Blacks and France at Yarrow Stadium in 2013 (Credit: Getty Images)

The legacy of the first openly gay footballer in English football, Justin Fashanu – who was subject to widespread abuse in the media and in the terraces, which ultimately lead to his suicide in 1997 – continues to cast a shadow over the game.

Since Fashanu came out in 1990, no other player has disclosed their sexuality publicly.

However, Owens offered a positive message for any footballer considering going public with their sexuality. He said he believes the world has changed and, like him, the next footballer to come out will receive a positive response from fans.

“Rugby is not a homophobic sport and I don’t think football will be a homophobic sport when the first person comes out,” he said. “He or she will realise that they will be allowed to be who they are in the sport and the majority of people will support them for who they are.

“The problem is, it’s going to be difficult for that first person because they will be that pioneer and the eyes of the world will be on them. And you have to be a certain kind of person – a strong person – to say ‘right, if it means I’m going to be the first one, then I’m going to be the first one.’

“And maybe a lot of them don’t want to be that first one. “