The former Ireland international rugby star, Neil Francis, has apologised unreservedly for the “extremely clumsy” comments he expressed regarding homosexuality in sport and other careers on News talk’s ‘Off The Ball’ show.
Mr Francis spoke on Matt Cooper’s radio show ‘The Last Word’ this evening, and apologised profusely for the opinions he expressed over the weekend. International referee, Nigel Owens, was present in studio alongside Francis. Owens had already spoken on the Pat Kenny Show and had made his disapproval of and disgust at Francis’ comments very clear, and was invited to address Francis directly.
Mr Owens, who had previously contemplated suicide while struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, said “I don’t know the company Neil Francis is keeping [nor] who he has sat down and spoken to, but he hasn’t spoken to a lot of people I know playing sport and rugby in particular”. Throughout the discussion, Mr Owens maintained that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but said he hoped that when Mr Francis listened back to his interview, he would “…realise what he’s saying”.
The comments that Neil Francis made that caused such huge offence sparked a digital riot on the Twitter network. Mr Francis had made assumptions about the number of homosexuals in professional sport, saying he found that their interests lay elsewhere, in areas of work such as hairdressing.
“As a sportsman, you don’t like ballet… if you did a survey of the hairdressing industry, how many heterosexuals work in that?” he remarked.
Owens responded directly to this comment saying “When you come up with a comment of ‘I have no interest in ballet’, that just sums [the person] up as somebody who is living in the dark ages and [wrongly] stereotyping people.
People like [Francis] who people still look up to … need to think long and hard before coming out with statements like this [and consider] what harm he is doing to young people who are really struggling with who they are.”
Owens gave a raw account of his near-death experience for the few minutes he was speaking, saying that he came within mere minutes of taking his own life because of the pressure he felt from the stigma attached to being a professional in sports that is gay.
Owens had written on Facebook earlier, saying “Disappointing to read Neil Francis’ comments. Sport is for all. No matter who you are or where you’re from. Many gay people play sport at all levels. Just most have chosen not to come out and that is their choice. A choice, which should be respected. Be yourself and do what’s right for you. Let’s make sport a safe and welcoming environment for all. I have honestly been made welcome everywhere I go when officiating rugby, and that, my friends, I am truly grateful and humbled for.”
24 hours after his initial comments, Francis stated that his interview and the views he expressed within it “didn’t sound like me at all, in a sense.
A lot of people who listened to it said ‘that’s not your form’. I realise I was in a field of landmines and I stood on one or two. Some of the points that I was trying to make were very clumsily made and my language and the analogies I was trying to make were quite poorly expressed. It’s unusual for me not to be able to articulate myself, but in this instance I was unable to do so.
…on reflection I would like to withdraw those comments and apologise profusely and unreservedly on any issue that might have [caused offence].”
While on The Last Word, Cooper offered Owens a chance to say what he thought of the notions voiced by Francis. Owens said he was relieved and thought that it was good that Mr. Francis was “able to go back and reflect on what he said” adding that “…we all make mistakes in our lives … If [Francis’] apologies are genuine then it is good to hear that he is apologising”.
Francis caused more controversy when responding to Cooper’s question as to whether his apology had been genuine. “People know who I am and that I only say what I mean. I don’t think there is any point in saying something unless I mean it.” This contradictory statement has reinforced the homophobic image that Francis has created for himself, implying he meant what he said initially when speaking on Newstalk.
This issue is one of many raised in Ireland at the moment, regarding gay rights and homophobia in the media. In the past month, Ireland has played host to numerous debates on gay rights, both on national television and in the Dáil. TDs John Lyons and Jerry Buttimer spoke openly in the Dáil, on February 6th, about being beaten, spat at, chased and threatened for being gay. Well-known drag-queen Panti Bliss was at the center of the trouble and social-media revolution that RTE faced when they paid out damages of up to €85,000 to members of the IONA Institute and columnists belonging to the Irish Times for being labelled as homophobic by Ms Bliss, as well as broadcasting an apology. The rage and uproar that these settlements encouraged nation-wide were further heightened when a debate within the Dáil was proposed, to attempt to define the meaning of the word ‘homophobic’.
Journalist Una Mullally was particularly outspoken about this debate, saying that “the people who should define what it means to be homophobic are the ones who are victims of it. Do we need a debate to define racism? Sexism? Ageism? No. So why homophobia?”
There will be a referendum held on gay marriage this year. The Irish Government’s own constitutional think-tank voted with the majority in favour of gay marriage in 2013, thus making the issue a priority on the political agenda.