Standing up for equality
May 29, 2012
It's a global game with different cultures, races and genders embracing the ethos but rugby is still a game littered with taboos.
Former rugby players Duncan Bell and John Kirwan have already spoken out about depression while Gareth Thomas' headline-grabbing honesty about his own homosexuality was a landmark moment in sport. A year ago Ben Cohen - 57 caps for England, World Cup winner, Heineken Cup winner - has decided that his trophy-laden mantelpiece is not enough of a legacy and has his sights set on a fresh goal.
Since Cohen's retirement, he has embarked on a worldwide tour promoting the work of the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. The charity's direct uncomplicated mission is to tackle bullying, with homophobia a key aspect. Simple in message but complicated in application and delivery. It does not utilise the usual pathways a charity undertakes to secure grants and sells merchandise to fund their own initiatives. With sponsors such as Nike and Microsoft on board, it has impressive grounding, but it was forged in tragedy.
Cohen's reason for embracing a totally different kind of battle having hung up his boots are deeply personal. "My Dad got beaten to death outside a nightclub back in October 2000 while he was protecting someone and the amount of long-term damage that it caused the family was huge," Cohen told ESPN. "It obviously affected my own family during the court cases and trial and so I channeled all of my anger and aggression into rugby. That paved the way for half a season and then I used it to become the best player I could be with the goal to win a World Cup."
With Cohen's charity focused on standing up to bullying the same way his father had, it was a random search on Facebook that helped mould the foundation.
"In 2007 I came across a Facebook page dedicated to me with 37,000 'fans' which happened to be all men. I'm someone who's very comfortable in my own sexuality having been with my wife since I was 16. Our best friends are also gay so I thought I could do something to perhaps make a difference.
"We started off by doing some interviews with people who were perceived to be different and what we were focused on was breaking down stereotypes. In 2011 I retired from rugby to set up the StandUp Foundation."
Homosexuality is still taboo in sport and in relation to rugby, this is in part due to only one player - Thomas - revealing his sexuality. This is something Cohen wants to change.
"I have never seen homophobia in rugby, I have never witnessed it," Cohen said. "I'm not saying that people don't use homophobic slurs - labelling someone 'gay' or along those lines, it does happen. But we are where racism was 20 years ago, we know that by educating the next generation then it will drive that social change. It is about educating - educating the teachers and students to make that necessary difference. We go into schools and we help organisations who are trying to preach the same message."
The government launched the 'Sports Charter' in March 2011 which aims to tackle homophobia and transphobia in sport and Cohen is also part of the Let's Kick Homophobia into Touch initiative. But while his involvement in the homosexual community is key to the foundation, he has been quick to emphasise in the past that it is not limited to just that. For him, it is about changing the whole sporting playfield to promote all-pervading equality.
"I think it's important that people in that position as sportsmen and women are role models and do speak out about things like homosexuality or depression," Cohen said. "It's not about hiding away and is about confronting it. We are working close with Nike to make sure that the pitch or track is a place of equality. It's not about the skin colour, or hair, size or sexual orientation and we need more role-models in sport. We need more people to look up to and respect."
With other sports personalities already giving their backing to the StandUp Foundation, it has a strong international grounding. Cohen will front the Bingham Cup - named after Mark Bingham who was on United 93 back on the fateful September 11, 2000 - a world championship of gay and inclusive rugby teams to preach the message that it is a game of equality regardless of race, religion or sexuality.
Ben Cohen is an ambassador for the Bingham Cup, the world championship of gay and inclusive rugby teams. The Bingham Cup is proudly sponsored by Gaydar.net.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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