During the Third Test of the recent series against the West Indies, England cricket captain Joe Root was asked by an opposition bowler, Shannon Gabriel, if he “liked boys” in a derogatory manner. Root was subsequently picked up by the umpire’s microphone telling Gabriel: “don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
On the face of it, this was an event of little significance. Gabriel was quickly slapped with a four-match ban, the cricketing world was effusive in its praise for Root, and everybody patted themselves on the back and moved on. Yet by making a stand against something that could just as easily have been ignored, Root set an example that his team, and the sporting world in general, should follow.
Sport has long been an arena which has struggled to effectively deal with discrimination, both from fans and the players themselves. Abusive language is ingrained in its culture, all the way from school playing fields to the international level. Often, these insults are not intended as homophobic, but are more a way to distract an opponent or mock a teammate. Its pervasiveness has normalised it for many who would otherwise be the first to condemn homophobia, leading to many feeling excluded from a culture that all too often seems dominated by the old boys network.
Nowhere is this more true than cricket, where the art of verbal abuse has become part and parcel of the professional game, to the extent that it even has its own term – sledging. Gabriel himself claimed that he had believed the comment was merely “inoffensive sporting banter”. There are not any clear statistics for the number of homophobic incidents in cricket, but I would happily wager that there are many cases like this where there are no recriminations for the use of discriminatory language.
In other words, it would have been easy for Root to continue without comment. Gabriel’s insult had not even been picked up by any of the surrounding microphones, and it was only later that he revealed what he had actually said. Many other players in Root’s position would have chosen instead to just focus on hitting their next ball. Yet instead he confronted the bowler, highlighting his offensive behaviour and demonstrating that it was unacceptable.
Other sports have of course been attempting to promote acceptance at the top level. The choice of many rugby stars to wear rainbow laces after a hate attack on former player Gareth Thomas was undoubtedly a positive one. Yet it is not the same. It is one thing to offer a token level of support to the victim of an obviously vile criminal act (that some players chose not to wear the laces because they were “uncomfortable,” is besides the point). It is arguably much harder to condemn behaviour which for decades has been indoctrinated within sporting culture.
It is also notable that Root’s outcry was entirely unprompted. There had been no preceding furore. His opposition to the abuse wasn’t released in some carefully pre-planned press release, and he didn’t need to wait for the public to ask for his opinion. He simply informed Gabriel that his behaviour was not acceptable, and then went on with his business.
This is not to say that this is all that will be needed in the fight against discrimination in sport. There will be harder questions that we all have to ask ourselves, with less simple answers. But Root has demonstrated that tackling everyday discrimination can be just as important as taking on the larger issues.
Image: Naparazzi via Flickr