Lighting fires at sports matches

Foul language at sports matches is more ‘than a bit of banter’

I once lit a fire at a sports match. The other day I watched an online video as a Canadian TV reporter burned another at a stadium to the ground. After biting her tongue for a year, she called some Toronto FC soccer fans out on their post-match language. Live on air.

“F*** her in the p****” were their words to be precise. It’s a meme that’s apparently been around at sports matches for a while now. I completely missed it, thank goodness, but Canadian TV reporter Shauna Hunt used her position to make sure the world knew all about this behaviour. It was a social media blaze, and those fans got burned.

Their defence for heckling her? It was just a bit of banter. Shouting out such insanities is all in the spirit of the game, right? If English football fans can say such things, so can Canadians. That’s literally what the guys said. As for New Zealanders, we’re all up for cheap talk at sports events too.

I’m seeing this rhetoric about foul language at sports games being 'just a bit of banter' re-appear in response to recently released international report Out it the Field.  One of its main findings is that out of the six English-speaking countries surveyed, New Zealand athletes are the most likely to hide their sexual identity. This is despite gay-identified respondents from New Zealand being the most likely to play sports as youths, and rugby as adults.

Many commentators have been quick to dismiss the seriousness of this finding. The insinuation is that people should just harden up, accept our sporting culture for all its offensive glory. That’s what I’ve been told before. Like the Canadian reporter, I got fed up with listening to drunken insults at a stadium one night. At Eden Park watching the All Blacks play, I called some guys out for repeating calling the ref and athletes ‘faggots’. They did not like it.

Because ‘a faggot is just a pile of sticks’. Yep, that was literally one of the guys’ responses. Followed by – you guessed it - a swift justification of banter, and a reminder that if I didn’t like how they spoke, I should have just stayed home. Getting all heated and shouting such slurs was ‘just part of the game’. Clearly, I was a being a sensitive wee soul.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When you use the word faggot as an insult it implies that being gay equates with being ‘useless’.

Two years has gone by and I still stand by my reasons for setting that pile of sticks alight at the rugby. Foul language is a disgusting side effect of our sports culture in New Zealand and it is not being too PC to point this out. Especially when we’re dealing with people’s lives. Because that is the reality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When you use the word faggot as an insult it implies that being gay equates with being ‘useless’. Especially when it comes to sports.

The facts from Out in the Field back up the reality of how this makes people feel. Our brothers, sons and friends are sometimes literally too scared to be who they are. Despite marriage equality, we still live in a society where to be openly gay is to be equated with the lowest of insults. As if sporting prowess is really defined by sexual attraction. Yeah right.

Thank goodness for openly gay teams like Auckland’s Falcons, who are beginning to challenge this rhetoric. It’s a slow change though; there is still a lot of segregation in sports. The implication of the findings is that at a society, we’re by and large, not yet prepared to integrate such diversity as sexual orientation into our rugby teams. If you’re gay, play in a ‘gay’ team seems to be the assumption. It’s probably also the safest option for many people.

When I saw that Canadian video clip the other day, for the first time since my night at Eden Park I felt truly justified for lighting a fire. Not because nobody supported me when I did – I had people and communities across the country that really rallied behind me. The response was overwhelming and positive.

Seeing that clip made me feel justified because the behavior displayed by those men and their response to the reporter echoed my own experience. It was in the way they so blatantly challenged her, even though their arguments didn’t really make sense. Watching their response confirmed that I wasn’t making up what happened to me. After having my experience so publicly discussed, I felt a lot of the time I was very alone and had to continue justifying that what I witnessed really was a problem.

The result of Shauna Hunt using her role as a reporter to draw attention to the behaviour of sports fans has exposed the global extent of this cultural black spot. Clearly, this problem with banter extends further than just being about homophobia. My experience, the Shauna Hunt’s experience and Out in the Field are all wake up calls to this.

We need a worldwide shift in what we define as being acceptable behaviour at sporting matches. Here in New Zealand this should to involve a cross-sector approach from governments, educators and sporting bodies. Similar to the approach we’ve recently taken stigmatising smoking, such foul language - justified as banter - needs to be weeded out of our social norms.

The owners of Toronto FC has made a good start, leading by example. Some of the men who heckled the reporter face a citywide ban from all sporting venues. Rightly so – their presence is detrimental to the community spirit that should accompany sport events. It’s going to take a lot more fire-starters before we burn this behaviour out though. Luckily, fanning the flames with a little bit of energy and discussion means such fires can be spread quickly. Bigoted banter needs to feel the heat.