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GARETH THOMAS EXCLUSIVE: They were uneducated comments, but I know Neil Francis made a mistake

by Gareth Thomas | February 20, 2014

Looking back at how I phrased it, I can see how it could be misinterpreted.
I didn’t mean to threaten Neil Francis with physical violence. I was genuinely offering to get into a room with him, lock the door and educate him as to why his comments on gay people in elite sport where so wide of the mark.

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From someone who has been in that position, I would love to be able to tell him the reality of what it’s like to live that life. I’ve been there and I could genuinely teach him a hell of a lot. That’s what I was trying to say – it’s a case of sitting down, chatting about it and answering any issues he might have identified and explaining why they aren’t really issues in this day and age. Having a bare-knuckled fight with him might have felt good, but it wouldn’t have helped anyone.

The comments didn’t enrage me or anything. I respect the man and I respect that everyone is allowed to have their point of view.

It’s an education

As I saw it, he didn’t intend any malice, he just came across badly because he sounded uneducated – like he was talking about a subject he didn’t know about. That’s because, number one, he had no experience in it and number two, he probably hasn’t encountered too many people who have experienced it. He was trying to articulate his point of view as well as he could, but ended up digging himself a deeper hole. I listened to it three times and after that I understood what he was trying to say, but he didn’t do it at all well. I’d like to have 20 minutes with him, but just to educate him on how it feels for someone who has been there.

I’m aware he apologised and it was out of character for the man so I have no problem with him. The bigger issue is we’re at a turning point for gay people in sport.

Michael Sam potentially has a long career ahead of him in the NFL and he’s about the first high profile openly gay man who will begin his professional career out of the closet. That’s massively significant. I’ve been to the United States a lot and we think of it as being modern and progressive because the big tourist cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles etc, but the heart of America is still quite bigoted. Views can vary hugely from town to town and state to state, but there’s still a large core of people with old-fashioned, blue collar views and they won’t accept it. For someone to come out as gay in such an American, macho environment is a huge development for not only sport, but the world in general.

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If I was to give him any advice based on my own experience, it would be just be true to yourself and as good at your sport as you possibly can. That’s not especially aimed at gay athletes, it’s for young sportspeople in general. You always have doubters, especially when you’re starting out. You have people who tell you you’re God’s gift, but in the back of their minds, they’re waiting for you to fall. They’re waiting for the ‘I told you so’ bandwagon to roll by so they can jump on and enjoy the perverse pleasure they get from seeing someone fail.

He’s going into it as openly gay, but his burning desire should first and foremost to be ‘the best athlete I can possibly be’. When I looked back at my career, yeah people would know I was gay, but I’d want the headline story to be how my performances in the sport overshadowed everything else. I’d want my ability to be what people remember, not my sexuality.

In American football, the players tend to be quite far away from the crowds, more so that football or rugby over here where the crowds are often right on top of you. Plus it’s normally so noisy that you can’t hear much anyway. He probably won’t hear as much homophobic abuse as I did, but if he does, he needs to remember what he’s there for.

For me, there were times when it hurt, but there were also times when I used it to my advantage. It empowered me to prove the doubters wrong. If someone shouted ‘bender’ or ‘faggot’ from the crowd, I would try to do something in the game that crushed their perception of what they thought as gay person was. It motivated me to make a better hit or execute an amazing play. I wanted the rugby to talk for me rather lowering myself to their level.

If gay athletes just continue to be as good as they can possibly be, then maybe the future Neil Francis’s of this world won’t need to make apologies because they won’t feel the need to comment on an athlete’s sexual orientation in the first place. Hopefully that time may not be too far away.

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