Mark Bingham is rugby union’s iconic gay player

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    Mark Bingham, AP Photo/family handout

    Mark Bingham, AP Photo/family handout

    Good on Gareth Thomas for revealing to The Sunday Times that he is gay and wants to come out of the closet. Thomas, aged 35, is at the end of a great career that saw him captain the British and Irish Lions and become the most-capped Welsh player.

    But we shouldn’t get too carried away about the bravery involved in the decision.

    A cynic might suggest, in fact, that a tell-all book, along the lines of the Andre Agassi model, is probably on the way.

    The fact of the matter is that the news that Thomas is gay is hardly earth-shattering stuff.

    Most British rugby journalists knew that Thomas was gay. His career was never threatened. Players in the Welsh squad knew as well. They, like the rugby media, protected his secret.

    It is hardly as if Thomas is the first Welsh rugby identity to come out in recent times. Nigel Owens, the dapper, neat-as-a-pin international rugby referee, with his high-pitched Welsh voice, came out a couple of years ago.

    Although he had contemplated committing suicide earlier, Owens’ career continued on its upward trajectory after he made his announcement.

    This season, for instance, he refereed England-Argentina at Twickenham and Ireland-South Africa at Croke Park.

    It has suited the gay reform movement to paint male team sports as bastions of gay-bashing. But, in fact, it is difficult to think of occasions in recent years when someone coming out as gay in a team sport environment has suffered.

    Simon Barnes, the brilliant award-winning sports columnist for The Times, has written a foolish piece about how Thomas’ announcement has dragged sport’s secret out of the closet.

    “In questions of sexuality,” he writes, “male team sports have always been in perpetual flight from the very notion of homosexuality.”

    Barnes has no understanding of matters relating to rugby union.

    There was no mention of Owens in his attempts to implicate male sports teams as homophobic bastions. Nor is there any reference to Mark Bingham, whose life and death refutes Barnes’ silly and uninformed attack.

    And who was Mark Bingham?

    He was one of the heroes of United Flight 93, on that terrible day known to history as 9/11.

    Four terrorists on board captured the plane and tried to crash it into the Pentagon. The 9/11 Commission has published details on how Bingham and some other passengers attempted to retake the plane about 30 minutes after it has been commandeered.

    The passengers put the plane into a nose dive that sent it crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, rather than the Pentagon. They lost their own lives but saved many hundreds of other lives through their bravery.

    Before the plane crash, Bingham made a call to his mother. His mother, who had worked as a flight attendant on United Airlines, left a voice message to her son telling him he had to re-take the plane.

    This bravery on the part of Bingham was typical.

    After the crash, Bingham’s partner, Paul Holm, told the media that Bingham had protected him against several attempted muggings, one of them at gunpoint.

    “He hated to lose at anything,” Holm said about Bingham. He went on to relate how Bingham carried scars he’d gained from running the bulls in Pamploma.

    The back story to Bingham that captured the attention of the US media was that he was not only a proud gay man, he was also a passionate rugby man who founded gay rugby teams, organised tournaments for them, played number 8 (he was 1.93cm and 102kg), and taught his team-mates his favourite rugby songs.

    After Bingham’s exploits on United Flight 93 came out, T-shirts started appearing around the United States with these words on them: TERRORISTS BEWARE, RUGBY PLAYERS ON BOARD.

    The details of Mark Bingham’s story (some of them used in this article) are related in his Wikipedia biography.

    He lived an impressive life by any standards.

    He was a successful businessman and a role model (Simon Barnes take note) for everyone who plays and supports a team sport like rugby. He was inclusive and combative, in the best traditions of the rugby game.

    One of his best-remembered quotes to encourage gay men to play rugby is this:  “This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds, and to reach a group that might never have had to know or hear about gay people … Let’s go and make some new friends … and win a few games.”

    Bingham’s deeds on United Flight 93 have been portrayed in three movies.

    The Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament, established in 2002, is a bi-annual international rugby union competition for gay and bisexual men.

    Melissa Etheridge has written a song, Tuesday Morning, in his memory.

    Gareth Thomas, like Nigel Owens, has shown courage to come out. But Mark Bingham, a rugby player who never hid his sexuality, will forever be rugby union’s iconic gay player.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (65)

    • December 23rd 2009 @ 8:39am
      Mr cheese said | December 23rd 2009 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      I believe that Gareth Thomas gave ( sold ? ) his story to the Mail on Sunday.

      There is a difference between the MoS and the Sunday TImes. The Times is owned by Murdoch but is ( was ? ) a newspaper of quality. The Mail stable, meanwhile, recently made headlines when one of its columnists, Jan Moir, wrote a controversial piece about the death of the gay Boyzone singer, Stephen Gateley.

      It is a minor error, je crois. But then so was Mr Barnes’s, perhaps.

      We are all of us flawed – except for the Bishop of Rome.

      Interesting article, however.

    • Roar Guru

      December 23rd 2009 @ 9:52am
      LeftArmSpinner said | December 23rd 2009 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      Spiro, as we wind down for Chrissie, a great article that puts this issue into its proper context. Storms in a tea cup. its not about the sexuality, its about the mateship and commraderie.

    • Columnist

      December 23rd 2009 @ 10:13am
      Spiro Zavos said | December 23rd 2009 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      Mr Cheese, the story I read on Gareth Thomas coming out was in the Sunday Times and involved an interview with its main sports writer. You can read it there if you get up. I don’t know whether the Mail on Sunday did a similar piece but most of the agency stories followed the quotes from the Sunday Times.
      I would argue that Simon Barnes by neglecting to put the story in context of Nigel Owens and Mark Bingham was merely repeating a gay lobby assertions about team sports being hostile to gays that may have been true some decades ago but has not been true for many years.
      That, and the chance to invoke the memory Mark Bingham, who was clearly a great man, is what my piece is about.

      • December 23rd 2009 @ 10:39am
        Mr cheese said | December 23rd 2009 @ 10:39am | ! Report


        thanks for the reply. Simon Barnes is a bit over-rated, a mon avis. I haven’t read his article.

        I continue to believe, however, that people’s attitudes change at a different speed from legislation. Over here in England, open mockery of homosexuals on TV is no longer common, but that doesn’t mean that people have changed their minds.

        Until very recently, you had a gay air steward from San Francisco on one of your sports shows. The assumption was that people would laugh along with the casual homophobia. I have never played either rugby league or union – we don’t have them in Liverpool, you see – but I know that attitudes amongst men aren’t always 100 % liberal. Whatever the politicians say, people have their own views.

        It is not my contention that Matthew Johns’s former job as a ‘comedian’ means that Australia is less enlightened than England. Perhaps both countries have more problems than either would be happy to admit.

        Thanks for the article, anyway. I hadn’t even heard of Mr. Bingham.

    • December 23rd 2009 @ 11:06am
      WA said | December 23rd 2009 @ 11:06am | ! Report

      If it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true :/

    • December 23rd 2009 @ 2:50pm
      Mike G said | December 23rd 2009 @ 2:50pm | ! Report

      Spiro, whilst I agree MB has an esteemed place in rugby history (that may or may not be ackonowledged by the IRB one day), I think it’s a little harsh to have a go at GT for coming out. Obviously it’s a delicate situation, but at the end of the day only those gay men (or women) in that environment can truely understand it, & therefore know when (if at all), it is appropriate to come out.
      The fact is, for most normal blokes under the age of 40 (sorry, had to pick a number), knowing that a guy you play footy with is gay means absolutely nothing…All that matters is that he/she contributes appropriately to the team performing at it’s best.

    • December 23rd 2009 @ 4:22pm
      Joe O'Sullivan said | December 23rd 2009 @ 4:22pm | ! Report

      -“He lived an impressive life by any standards.” By any standards Spiro? Maybe and maybe not. I’ve been married for 33 years and have raised 7 children so I might have a different perspective on Mark Bingham’s strengths and weaknesses (he would have had both). What does it mean to claim that rugby union (or any sport) has an iconic gay player? Does it advance, undermine or have no impact on the game’s development? Is the particular individual thought to be of more or less value to society than you and I? Do we need to acclaim iconic adulterers? Without doubt Mark Bingham displayed enormous courage during the final moments of his life, but were his actions in any way linked to his sexual orientation or his sport of choice? What was the inspiration for the other passengers who joined Bingham in a desperate bid to triumph over darkness? Neither you, I nor Simon Barnes is in a position to encapsulate the mores of a heterogeneous sporting world. The problem with elevating Bingham to a particular status based on circumstance and selective characteristics is that it overlooks a multitude of other factors that may be more important in evaluating his legacy. Let’s acknowledge his sporting prowess and leave other appraisals for those who knew him.

      • December 30th 2009 @ 4:47am
        Keith said | December 30th 2009 @ 4:47am | ! Report

        – “What does it mean to claim that rugby union (or any sport) has an iconic gay player? Does it advance, undermine or have no impact on the game’s development?”
        It doesn’t have anything to do with the game’s development. The article was refuting claims made about attitudes toward gays within the game.

        – “Is the particular individual thought to be of more or less value to society than you and I? Do we need to acclaim iconic adulterers?”
        Do you have to keep asking irrelvant questions?

        • Roar Guru

          December 30th 2009 @ 7:20am
          Poth Ale said | December 30th 2009 @ 7:20am | ! Report

          I thought they were very relevant questions to ask.

        • December 30th 2009 @ 8:04pm
          Joe O'Sullivan said | December 30th 2009 @ 8:04pm | ! Report

          Keith, relevancy or irrelevancy as the case may be is a matter of opinion. I have two primary concerns with Spiro’s article (which as you correctly identify is a response to the story by Simon Barnes). Firstly he appears to draw a link between notions of nobility and courage with sexual activities that may constitute nothing more than self gratification. Secondly he seems to regard the body politic of rugby union as a homogeneous group by suggesting a singular moral doctrine that has the support of all.
          Let me deal firstly with my second objection. Sports and specifically in this case male team sports like rugby union consist of a multitude of people, both male and female, with a wide variety of backgrounds. I question the ability of anyone to articulate an ethic norm for a group of individuals whose common interest is pursuit of a particular sport. There will be as many conflicting views and attitudes on homosexuality as there are rugby union fans. No one position can be said to be representative of the whole.
          More importantly for me though Keith is my first point. What one considers to be dignified and worthy is very much dependent upon the principles one embraces and the values thus engendered. The comment was made above that “its (sic) not about the sexuality”. Superficially this might be true because, whether we like it or not, it is much more than just sexuality, it is about a moral compass and the choices we make. The laws of rugby union in as much as they encourage sportsmanship and fair play are underpinned by this same ethos. If media reports of the last six weeks are to be believed one might reasonably conclude that Tiger Woods is or was a serial fornicator and adulterer. Is Tiger to be granted equivalent iconic status within the golfing world for his sexual practices? And if he were what would the consequences be for him, the game and the world wide golfing fraternity? Our deeds have consequences far beyond personal circumstances. Who we propose as role models and why we do so is important, and so too are the standards we choose to embrace or reject.

          • December 31st 2009 @ 5:20am
            Keith said | December 31st 2009 @ 5:20am | ! Report

            Hi Joe, the article didn’t draw a direct link between Bingham being gay and his actions on the plane. He was a gay rugby player, and he chose to be heroic on the last day of his life. Nowhere in the article is there a claim he made that choice because he was gay or a rugby player.

            You make a fair point about the difficulty of assigning “ethic norms” to groups of people, but you take it too far. They exist – as clear as the nose on your face – and they’re called cultures. Countries have them, professions have them and sports have them. Hell, even groups of mates have them. The article was about attitudes towards gays in rugby. It’s reasonable it should use examples.

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