Opinionista Will Von Fronenheim 24 March 2015

Is South Africa ready for a gay Springbok?

South Africa’s Jacques Potgieter was fined for a homophobic slur over the weekend. He has apologised profusely, but the whole episode has led one fan to ponder whether South Africa is ready for a gay Springbok – and what it might mean for sport if the country is not.

A mere day after South Africa commemorated the memory of 69 South Africans who offered their lives in the fight for equal rights, a Springbok, in the heat of the moment, uttered words of discrimination that – apologies aside – he can’t take back. Swift action by the Australian rugby player and outspoken LGBT activist David Pocock led to the Australian Rugby Union fining the ex-Bulls player Jacques Potgieter AUS $20,000 ($10,000 suspended) after he used the word “faggot” when addressing two different Brumbies at Allianz Stadium. The Brumbies made a formal complaint after the match.

The loose forward, currently tending his trade at the New South Wales Waratahs, apologised a day later via his Instagram account: “To all the rugby community, fans and public. I sincerely apologise for the hurtful words spoken during the Brumbies encounter. In the heat of the moment I regrettably uttered a word with no intent to discriminate. I respect everyone from all walks of life and would never intentionally hurt or judge anyone; it’s not in my character. I apologise for my actions and understand the seriousness of the matter.”

Discrimination comes in many forms, and in many cases people don’t really understand the full implications of the words they utter. Without questioning Jacques Potgieter’s sincerity, one can’t help but wonder if he really did fully understand the seriousness of the matter – especially since he did not actually acknowledge his gaffe as homophobia or address his apology to the LBGT community.

In June 2014 the UK Independent published an article about an anonymous gay footballer revealing some of his most intimate fears. Under the alias of ‘Nico’, this German footballer told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle of his struggle after teammates by chance found out he was gay. The predictable concerns around bathroom etiquette were the least of his worries; ultimately, it was rather the way his revelation impacted his first team possibilities. Playing in the Under-19 Bundesliga, he was soon alienated by both players and coaches and eventually out of contention because [he] was playing badly”. Nico’s new status made him unfavourable. He said: “That (being dropped for allegedly playing badly) showed me that being gay just isn’t accepted in football. And that won’t change in the near future.”

Nico’s comments came months after former German international midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay. Nico said: “After Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out, we hoped that there would be some changes, but I think it has become worse. The media had been giving positive reports but you have to differentiate between the media and the situation on the field.”

He added: “As a homosexual player, I feel Hitzlsperger’s coming out has encouraged the right-wing. Homophobia in the stands has got worse.”

Nico’s story stands in contrast to a poll taken by Think Progress in May 2014. The poll found that the majority of fans across Europe and North America would support an openly gay player in their national teams. Sweden and Denmark had a 79% approval rating with England (73%), Portugal (68%) and Italy (68%) also showing a majority acceptance.

Interestingly enough, the two nations who’ve had openly gay football players, i.e. Germany and the USA, both showed far less support, with 53 percent and 52 percent respectively. Homosexuality has always been a contentious issue in sport. Many professional athletes have made the decision to go public with the knowledge, furthering their careers as openly gay men and women, swimming against the current of prejudice. The most recent and perhaps the most famous of athletes is American Football star Michael Sam, who kissed his boyfriend on live television after being drafted for the St. Louis Rams, and later being met with wide-spread ridicule and applause.

Considering the comments on Jacques Potgieter’s Instagram feed, one can’t help but wonder what our country’s reaction would be had it been revealed that one of their beloved Springboks was actually a gay man.

An optimistic guess is that the majority would not be fazed by the news. When Gareth Thomas came out, he stated that he might be the first openly gay rugby player, but he most certainly wouldn’t be the only one, as that would be statistically highly improbable. Rugby has always had a certain prominence in this country, and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a world where the gay youth of South Africa have an openly gay Springbok role model.

Interestingly, however, when I informally polled rugby fans with this question, most had rather strong opinions – and not as open-minded as one might think. Perhaps my sample was as tainted as the one-sided story about Nico, the gay under-19 Bundesliga player – but the majority really didn’t care for it; that is, the heterosexual majority.

Those who shared a certain resonance with Nico felt that it would be easier to overcome the existing prejudice if there were stronger role models. One response stuck with me: “Often Springboks would mention their girlfriend, wife and kids in interviews, they have their weddings on Top Billing and allow the public to share in their happiness. I don’t think any gay player should be deprived of that privilege if he wants to share.” In essence, will the public provide one of their role models with the basic human right of living a life without prejudice? The answer to that question is as obvious as Jacques Potgieter’s understanding – or lack thereof – of the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In June 2014, Rhyian Anderson-Morley, an Australian League player for the Yarraville Seddon Eagles, wrote a column for a local Australian publication. His sexuality affected him to such an extent that he almost gave up on the sport he loved with all his heart. I grew up wanting to play Australian rules. But when I started to realise I was gay, I withdrew into myself, stopping playing sport, and generally just lost myself in the person I thought I had to be,” he wrote.

He soon realised that that shouldn’t stop him, and continued following his dream – but also decided to not “parade his sexuality for several reasons”, adopting a kind of half-in, half-out of the closet existence. He didn’t keep his sexuality completely secret and even told the odd teammate, but as for the greater club, no one really knew. His turning point was when laughter followed the word “poof” when some teammates were discussing what was presumably Mr Michael Sam’s televised affection. His coming out, ultimately, was in writing.

I’m still not sure whether I made the right decision, but I am sure about two things. One, that the more you talk about it and the bigger deal you make about there being gay football players, the harder it becomes to make that bold move. And two, that I feel kind of stuck at the moment – I haven’t been sure whether to make that decision and come out to the boys at my club, whether it’s worth the drama or not. I guess this column is my way of doing that.” Three days after the column went viral he tweeted, “First footy training session since my article. Never trained better in my life.” I’m not suggesting that the tale of a brave Australian is just cause to call upon a South African role model, but his tale did make it across the border, much like Jacques’ defamation.

People like Anderson-Morley are highly inspirational for anyone in the gay community. I’ve always tried to respect any individual’s privacy, but Anderson-Morley’s story made me wish for a South African sporting hero who could also be a role model of this nature. Given my idolisation of Springboks and my underlying personal need to have a sporting role model with the gay community, it truly saddened me when it was revealed the perpetrator in David Pocock’s allegations was indeed one of our Springbok heroes.

I like to believe there shouldn’t be a need for any Springbok to come forward with the news that he’s gay, but there might very well be the need for a gay role model in the stature of a Springbok. That said, it is not for the public to decide whether or not we are ready for a gay Springbok – that’s a personal decision on the part of the player. The perspective that we might not consider is whether or not the environment in which sport stars, especially in a team sports, would welcome a revelation of this nature. We might never know the dynamics found inside a Springbok dressing room. I would like to believe that there is active knowledge of gay individuals in the team but supporting structures keep these dynamics private. When you have a group of 30+ players sharing so much time together, surely there’s a brotherhood that bridges any differences between them. It’s the public that will have a field day with this knowledge, surely.

We’ve definitely evolved from the days when we sung “Haka Haka moffie koor”, but still, as a rugby-loving nation, I don’t think we are ready to deal with the responsibility this knowledge would require. We live in a country that barely manages to understand the dynamics behind our very complex racial and religious differences. The quota system still divides many respected opinions and to this day, players are more often than not referred to as a “black player” or a “player of colour”. It’s easy to imagine us suddenly referring to someone as the “gay Springbok”.

Potgieter’s comment, and the comments on the timeline following his apology, make me believe we are not ready to have a “gay Springbok” or any prominent gay sporting hero. There are so many young boys and girls facing the demons embedded in their sexuality. Someone who has never dealt with similar experiences will never be able to truly fathom the complexities this battle entails. I know many people who chose to shy away from competitive team sport out of fear of homophobic chants. It would be such a privilege to have a Springbok willing to take a stand and become a role model these individuals desperately require. When asked why was coming out, Gareth Thomas specifically mentioned the need to inspire young gay men to play rugby.

I speak for many when I say the Springboks will always have my undying respect. I am not the only one who has idolised them over the years and I can guarantee you, if I had had a gay Springbok role model when I was younger, maybe my demons would have died a long time ago.

So yes, as someone within the LGBT community, I am saddened and aggrieved by this situation. I also respect the fact that Jacques Potgieter has apologised, but I would like to say this to you, Mr Potgieter: You wore that jersey with pride and on Sunday, you shamed it. I have no doubt that there is sincerity in your apology, but maybe you should have addressed your apology to those you insulted. DM


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