Student Pride debate featuring Ben Cohen and John Amaechi speaks out against homophobia in sport

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

The panel on a debate at National Student Pride yesterday emphasised the importance of tackling homophobia and transphobia in sport, said they had seen some change, but that much more action needed to be taken.

On the panel for the debate were rugby star and equal rights advocate Ben Cohen, John Amaechi, openly gay former NBA player, Premiership footballer Graeme Le Saux, and Delia Johnston, an anti-transphobia campaigner. The debate was hosted by Evan Davis, presenter for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The panel emphasised the need for more action in general on tackling homophobia in all sports. They also suggested that reports that sportspeople fearing that sponsorship deals being dropped were not necessarily the problem.

At the debate on homophobia in sport, Cohen suggested that bosses in sports such as Premiership football needed to do more to tackle the problem of homophobia within the sport head on.

He said: “There are many other sports which don’t have that problem. People in the Premiership don’t treat their fellow players with respect.

“There is no respect for the referee. He doesn’t have any power on the pitch and you have to talk to the top of the game to get that sorted out. Then you feed that through to the grassroots level,” he continued.

Cohen went on to say that he thought the sporting industries were slowly beginning to see forward movement against homophobia in sports, and that he hoped to see a shift going forward.

He said: “In ten years time we will be well on our way to [sportspeople] being judged on your talent, not on your sexuality, and it will be better for the next generation.”

La Saux said that the FA needed to tackle homophobia in football, and primarily, players on the receiving end of homophobic abuse needed to report the abuse, in order for something to be done about it.

Amaechi said that in the NBA there had always been players known to be gay, but that they just weren’t open about it to the public. He criticised bosses and referees in sports for attempting to claim that the issue of homophobia was too broad to tackle, and drew a comparison with racist abuse.

Amaechi questioned why “a referee [would know] what to do when someone calls someone a nigger but not a faggot?” He went on to call the suggestion that the idea that “incorporating” action on homophobic bullying with similar efforts to tackle racism, would be too difficult, as “nonsense”.

He also described sports as the “last bastion” of homophobia, that straight players were reluctant to allow gay players into an environment where they love each other, and where they “do stuff which is close to being gay”.

Despite suggestions that the sporting industry was moving forward, Johnston described problems faced by trans athletes in competitions such as the Olympics.

She said that rules said that it could take trans athletes over five years to be able to compete, as two years following surgery were required, as well as years leading up to it. She said that trans athletes were often “past their prime” because of those rules, which made it difficult for them to compete.

Earlier this week, the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, was left red-faced after accidently referring to rugby star Ben Cohen as “openly gay” – even though the former player has a wife and is straight.

Cohen also gave a speech at ParliOut, the Houses of Parliament’s gay staff network, earlier this week, where he said more needed to be done to combat homophobia in sport.

He also told that the continuous media debate surrounding the absence of an openly gay professional footballer in the UK can amount to a “witch hunt”.

Last year over 1,500 students attended National Student Pride, and this year organisers are expecting an even bigger number.

Recently Sir Elton John and David Furnish were announced as ambassadors for National Student Pride. X Factor 2012 star Lucy Spraggan will also be performing at the event.