Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Homophobia and sport: the Neil Francis edition.

It’s not enough to laugh off Neil Francis’ stupid remarks. He needs to be called on them.

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 11:47


We’re only days out from an Aaron Sorkin-esque speech about gay American footballer Michael Sam from Dale Hansen:
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(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

… and just a few days since Conor Cusack appeared on the Late Late Show. In Ireland right now, homophobia has become a dinner table conversation. Enter Neil Francis, the former Irish rugby international, appearing on Newstalk’s ‘Off The Ball’ show spouting comments about gay people not being interested in sport. Francis’ comments were outrageous, uninformed and offensive. If he had said the same thing about black sportspeople he’d probably be fired or unhired from every platform he has.¬†When people express these kinds of comments, you expect that their opinions leave them marginalised from sports broadcasting, writing, and commentating, at least in the eyes of those who disagree with them, and those disagreements are being vocally articulated in articles and on social media. But homophobia – especially homophobia in sport – is so pervasive, that probably won’t happen.

Most of us have prejudices. Most of us try to work on those prejudices. I’m not saying Francis’ opinion isn’t a common one. Unfortunately, it probably is, and that’s why a person in his position – of what is essentially a position of leadership – should contest those prejudices, not add to the noise. I don’t know how old Neil Francis is, but I’m sure he’s no spring chicken, so the immaturity of his point of view shocked me.

You can listen here to the interview uploaded to Soundcloud by Balls.ie.

It goes without saying that Francis’ comments are at the very least careless. One shouldn’t have to point to the gay rugby teams, soccer teams, hockey teams around the country, nor talk about gay Irish sportsmen like Conor Cusack and Donal Og. You shouldn’t have to shove Michael Sam in his face, or Gareth Thomas. People shouldn’t have to say that most gay people they know play sports. I shouldn’t have to say that I know gay rugby players (male and female), soccer players, gaelic football players and gay hurlers, gay hockey players, gay marathon runners, gay triathletes, gay basketballers, gay athletes in general.

Beginning with musings on Joe Brolly and Donal Og, the conversation moved on to Michael Sam, whom Francis has seen play, “I noticed this guy because he was very flamboyant, a bit of a showman.” He then equated Sam’s coming out with Jimi Hendrix talking about Janis Joplin’s death as “great career move,” and questioned his motivation for coming out. What a mind-boggling analogy.

“You do a survey of the hairdressing industry and find how many heterosexuals work in that!” Francis sniggered. “There are a wide range of people who are homosexual… the environment that they’re in isn’t something that they’re very interested in, do you know what I’m saying?” Francis said, alluding to gay people not being interested in sport. “They’ve no interest…” Francis then said of gay people when it comes to sport. When the presenter, Joe Molloy, said he was stereotyping, Francis got grumpy, “why is this such a huge news story?” Francis said, about Michael Sam again, calling him “flamboyant” again, as well as a “self-publicist”.

The dismissal of sportspeople coming out as somehow trivial just because it’s not something Francis wants to read is almost bizarrely uninformed and lacking in empathy and understanding of the broader social context of homophobia in sport and why the visibility of gay athletes is so important. “They only do it after they retire.” They. They. They. Francis likes othering. “Good!” Francis said when the presenter said he’d upset a few listeners who were texting in. “You can see how it sounds like a gross, horrible generalisation?” Molloy countered.

“A rugby dressing room… is a pretty homophobic environment,” Francis stated. If that accusation is true, how does he propose that changes? We should be ashamed of rugby dressing rooms being homophobic, if that is indeed true. Stating that such an environment is homophobic and rigidly so, is as if that is an unalterable fact. How does the IRFU feel about that statement? How do Irish international rugby players feel about that statement?

He then tried to give context for his opinions, “It’s based on my practical, it’s not a generalisation, in every sphere of life, every year that you meet a gay man or gay people in a social environment… they’ve very little interest in sport.” Francis continued, “I don’t have an interest in ballet.” Yes, Francis, because all gays just love tutus and prancing around. Molloy continued to reprimand him saying “this stinks of being offensive, Neil.”

“I don’t think I’m generalising… I’m entitled to my opinion… I don’t care. I’m here, I’m going to express an opinion.” He then moved on to the Sochi Winter Olympics, “I have switched off, I haven’t switched on, I haven’t watched any of the Winter Olympics because of the furore. To be honest I’m sick and tired of picking up angles on whether the Russians have an anti-gay policy or not. It’s about the Olympics. And the side issue has just put me off watching the Winter Olympics.” Aw, poor Francis, I’m so sorry you’ve been put off by the gross homophobic laws implemented by the Russian government. I’m so sorry you’ve been put off by gay people being murdered, raped, tortured and beaten in Russia. I’m sorry people talking about that annoys you. Educate yourself.

Francis’ comments are hugely upsetting. They are offensive, reprehensible and hurtful. I’m especially angry because I’ve seen the hugely positive impact sport has had on some of my gay friends. I’ve seen the camaraderie of the Emerald Warriors gay rugby team and the respect that other rugby teams have shown them, far removed from Francis’ ignorance. I’ve seen the respect straight Irish women international rugby players – the best team in Europe – have shown to their lesbian teammates. I’ve seen the friendships and solidarity of the Pink Ladies hockey team.

I attended the Bingham Cup in Dublin in 2008 to watch the Emerald Warriors and other gay rugby teams play. It was an inspiring event. The Bingham Cup, of course, was named after Mark Bingham, a standout gay rugby player at Berkley who went on to play for the gay-inclusive rugby team, San Francisco Fog RFC, and was planning the establishment of a New York team when he died. Bingham was one of the passengers on United 93 who tried to overtake the hijackers on that plane on September 11th, 2001. Is that manly enough for you, Francis?

I thought Joe Molloy did the best job he could faced with ignorant meanderings. He called him on it. But we shouldn’t have to put up with this. Sport is a uniting force. So shame on you, Neil Francis.


*this post was edited at 12:09 to correct the presenter’s name as Joe Molloy. I mistakenly initially wrote that Ger Gilroy was the presenter. Apologies.*