Sport a tool to beat bigotry
Having conquered racism and religion, I cannot imagine a more potent weapon against homophia than our sporting icons coming out of the closet, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Pretoria - I’m one of those people who, when getting my hands on a newspaper, I instinctively read the back page first. It is a habit I formed for as long as I could read and long before I knew American jurist Earl Warren, the former governor of California and US Chief Justice, explained my routine best when he said: “I always turn to the sports page first… They record people’s accomplishments; the front page, nothing but man’s failure.”
In the past few days, the front pages again reported human society’s further regress from civilisation while the sports pages were offering a beacon of hope to all those who refuse to believe humankind is irredeemable.
Within a day of the most promising American footballer who is on the verge of turning professional, Michael Sam, revealing he is gay – thus set to be the National Football League’s first openly gay player – his president Barack Obama was warning Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni of a fallout if the east African leader signed into law an act that criminalises homosexual relations with even a threat of jailtime hanging over those who do not report gays and lesbians.
Similar draconian laws are springing up everywhere across our continent.
In the same week as Sam’s self-liberation, England women’s football team captain Casey Stoney also publically declared she was gay.
I am not so naïve to believe that bigots are only to be found on the front pages of newspapers. I am certain that having come out of the closet, Sam and Stoney will meet their own challenges from homophobes.
What the two represent though is a glimpse of the future. One day future generations will read about Sam and Stoney and wonder why a column such as this was even published.
They will take it for granted, like seeing a black woman at the front a bus in Alabama, US – something that was an act of extreme political defiance 50 years ago.
By their short statements, Stoney and Sam will in time prove Nelson Mandela was on to something when he said “sport has the power to change the world… it has the power to inspire; to unite people in a way little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than any government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Madiba could have added “breaking down barriers of prejudice”.
Sport has indeed played a role in breaking down barriers and bridging gulfs many had thought too tough and many of sport’s achievements once thought impossible are now commonplace.
In the 1970s, footballers of the likes of Lucky Styliano (Kaizer Chiefs) and Phil Venter (Orlando Pirates) were seen as exotic, yet when Neil Tovey lifted the 1996 Cup of Nations trophy there was hardly a murmur about his race.
Sport has also had to intervene in matters of faith. It was a big deal in 1989 when Scottish club Rangers signed Maurice “Mo” Johnston, and paraded him as “their first major Catholic signing” but nobody batted an eyelid when Lorenzo Amoruso became the first Catholic captain of the club in 1999.
Hopefully, Sam and Stoney will give gay local sports stars – forced into secrecy for fear of being ostracised – the confidence to be who they are and so sending a message on the futility of bigotry in a manner no academic or moral teacher could.
In a country where football and rugby have so many followers, it must be statistically dubious that there has never been one nor will there be any gay rugby or football star.
Coming out should not be seen as being for the voyeuristic pleasure of “gay watchers” but rather a commitment to living a life of integrity that comes with first and foremost being true to who you are.
Sport heroes speak “to youth in a language they understand… (creating) hope where once there was only despair”.
That is why corporates all over the world pay sports personalities huge fortunes to endorse their products.
Having conquered racism and religion and other divisive isms before, I cannot imagine a more potent weapon against homophia than the nation’s sporting icons coming out to challenge the stereotypes and bigotry.
At the rate things are going, Sam and Stoney’s exploits reported on the backpages will no longer just be on their sporting prowess.
But whatever they achieve on the field, they are already human rights champions and a reminder of how sports can inject light into the darkness of bigotry.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is executive editor of the Pretoria News