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A Holy Alliance: Joe Root, The Unity League, and even Mike Tyson

Jun 4, 2019 10:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf discusses the allyship and inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community in sports, as well as how the notion of masculinity is exemplified and communicated throughout time. He also draws upon artistic references from music to movies to illustrate how destructive sentiments are reflected and shares how we can welcome diversity, affirm the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community, and celebrate their contributions through education abroad.

The Languages of Homophobia

There are many reasons to be gloomy. The ideals that we believed to be widely shared are, it seems, more and more threatened by militant parochialism, prejudice, and the languages of hatred. This does not mean that there is no resistance to the encroaching darkness. I described one such manifestation in a piece called ‘I'll Kill You’: Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and Memory in November 2018. I was heartened and moved by the resistance to anti-Semitism expressed by Muslims Against Anti-Semitism. The power of their message was, at least in part, the context; it ran counter to assumed expectations of alienation. This seemed to me to represent an example what the poet W. H. Auden called “ironic points of light.”

I was also recently similarly struck by an event that took place in a cricket match between England and the West Indies. I am aware that many of my American friends view cricket as an arcane mystery marked by inexplicable rituals. It is, by way of example, a sport that rather wonderfully might last for 5 days and end in a draw because there was not enough time to finish. The late Robin Williams, a fine actor and comedian but an ill-informed sports commentator, once described cricket as “baseball on Valium.”

I also enjoy baseball. Like cricket it is a rather cerebral sport that has produced some great journalism, notably by Roger Kahn and Red Smith. It has inspired fine novels such as Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Baseball, like cricket, has an elastic view of time. The difference is that cricket, even in the five-day format, has a definitive ending whereas a baseball game in theory could go on forever into some kind of terrible infinity. [1]

Another point of similarity, as with most professional sports played by men, is that it takes place in an atmosphere marked by a kind of sweaty machismo. For the most part, these environments are not notably hospitable to, or tolerant of, sexual behaviors that do not entirely align with assumed masculine norms. Very few professional cricketers or soccer players have “come out,” perhaps in fear of what responses they might experience. Exchanges between opponents are not necessarily marked by sensitivity towards difference.

Stonewall at WembleyStonewall FC showed their support for the LGBTQ+ community in a match against Wilberforce Wanderers at Wembley stadium.

This makes the example of Joe Root, the England cricket captain, remarkable and inspiring. During an international match against the West Indies in February 2019, the West Indian bowler Shannon Gabriel asked Joe Root if he liked boys. In response to what was intended to be a homophobic taunt Root replied, “There's nothing wrong with being gay.” In the worlds we inhabit this is not a remarkable response. It is the least we would expect, but in the world of professional sport it stands out as an act of admirable, balanced affirmation.

The Root incident reminded me of an even more exceptional occurrence described by Peter Tatchell, the LGBTQ+ activist, at a CAPA student conference. In short, the boxer Mike Tyson (famous for punching power rather than political correctness) had reportedly made a homophobic remark. Peter, who is a slim, slight figure, confronted Tyson as he arrived at his training camp in Memphis on June 2, 2002. There is, as I remarked in my introduction of Peter, a thin line between courage and lunacy. Challenged to make a positive statement supporting lesbian and gay rights, Tyson said: "I oppose all discrimination against gay people." This did not transform Mike Tyson into a notable gay rights activist but did dissociate him from a culture in which homophobic rhetoric is a norm.

Boxing is by no means the only popular environment in which the language of homophobia is normalized. In “An analysis of hip-hop’s history of homophobia,” Marcelo Garcia noted that “an obsession with heteronormativity and masculinity, is something that anyone who has kept up with hip-hop culture is very familiar.”  [2]

He cites the frequent use of “faggot” as a term of abuse in lyrics of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem, and others. This is not acceptable nor is the frequent use of “bitch” to describe women. The language embeds reductive and destructive stereotypes in a form of popular discourse. It designates whole groups of people as less than others, without the individualism that would lead to recognition of a common humanity.

Rainbow Football FlagWhile there are sports that are not notably hospitable to the LGBTQ+ community, the London Unity League is designed to unite LGBT+ footballers and others in a competitive but friendly sporting environment.

I am not arguing for some mealy-mouthed political correctness or, God forbid, censorship. The plays of Martin McDonagh or Quentin Tarantino’s films, for example, are littered with similar epithets and racist language but they are in the voices of fictional characters. David Carradine, who appeared in Kill Bill, makes a similar point: "Tarantino's films… are a look inside the minds of violent people.” The context is critical. Characters in films, plays, or novels express a dramatic persona, a constructed identity. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth declares:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out…

This is, by no means, an endorsement of a principle of motherhood. The voices created by artists are not the same as their own. There is no such distancing filter when the language derives directly from the boxer, the sportsman, and the rap singer.

In contrast, Joe Root, Mike Tyson, and other public figures who speak directly in their own voices and denounce the language of homophobia offer “points of light” that illuminate some darker spaces.

The London Unity League

There is also a football league based in London that, with much less publicity, demonstrates, week in week out, ways in which stereotypical prejudices and intolerance can be challenged. (This is the real game played with a round ball that which is oddly called soccer in the USA.) The players and their teams are amateurs of varying abilities. They come from diverse backgrounds: teachers, actors, builders, accountants, and the unemployed.

Rainbow lacesSoccer players were encouraged to wear rainbow laces to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.

The London Unity League (LUL) has a basic principle. It is “designed to unite LGBT+ footballers and others in a competitive but friendly sporting environment.” The participants in this league are united in their enjoyment of the game and, much more significantly, by a rejection of stereotypical attitudes. The players, gay or otherwise, enact an important political and moral statement.

One of the teams in the league is called Stonewall Thirds. [3] The name commemorates demonstrations against oppressive actions directed towards gay communities in New York in 1969. [4] The Stonewall riots were critical acts of resistance in the civil rights movement in defense of those suffering the impacts of prejudice. Stonewall Thirds is the oldest and most well-known team in the LUL. It is not, however and alas, inevitably the most skillful or successful one. Not all the players are gay but all the players reject prejudice and demonstrate important ethical values. They are not paid to perform but instead pay to participate. They disrupt and subvert stereotypical assumptions and constructed, simplistic versions of a masculinity crudely defined through assumed heterosexual traits. As Stonewall footballer, Tom Cunningham, argues “football trades on ideals of masculine heroes and it’s this notion that needs to be challenged.” [5]

The importance and success of Stonewall and the LUL should not be measured by their athletic prowess alone. What is notable and inspiring is that they function in a machismo field in which the rhetoric of prejudice is common and frequently unchallenged. Language is of critical importance. “Unity” signals a common purpose that transcends the competitive nature of the individual teams. “Stonewall” explicitly resonates with a critical moment in civil rights history.

My son, Guy Woolf, plays for Stonewall Thirds. I believe that he is a remarkable athlete with wondrous skills and a rare talent. [6] I also accept that this view may be somewhat biased and that it does not necessarily always cohere with objective reality. However, I am unequivocally proud of the fact that Guy plays, however well or imperfectly, for a team called Stonewall Thirds in the LUL. Stonewall has a simple but important message:

It’s down to all of us to be an active ally to lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people in sport. Every player, every athlete, every team is stronger when sport welcomes and supports everyone.

Metaphors also matter. Stonewall instigated a campaign that urged players to wear rainbow laces as an expression of alignment with that message. Stonewall occupy a rather lowly place in the football hierarchy but their moral voice resonated across the soccer world in a manner that was profoundly influential. In 2018, the highest levels of professional soccer in England recognized the significance of the symbolism. The Chief Executive of the Football League declared that "our support for the campaign is further recognition that the LGBT community is a vital and integral part of our community." The League also joined the TeamPride coalition of companies, teams, and organizations committed to countering homophobia in sport, and made the Rainbow Laces part of a very public display of empathy so as “to highlight the hard work undertaken by clubs and their supporter groups to welcome fans in their stadiums, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.” On November 30, 2018, in an event that is unique in the history of amateur soccer, the Football Association invited Stonewall to play Wilberforce Wanderers at Wembley (the national football stadium). By any standard, this public recognition and endorsement demonstrates the potential potency of a message of tolerance and inclusion. It permeated far beyond the ostensible influence of the Stonewall team; those who speak with clarity and act with moral purpose made a difference in an environment that was not necessarily hospitable. They created a community of allies. The word “ally” occurs often in the literature of Stonewall. It describes a precise imperative to become a member of that moral community.

A symbol of justice and inclusion (an agenda close to the heart of international educators) engendered public commitment on an unprecedented scale. That does not remove homophobia from the world of sport, but it makes it harder for bigots to drown out reason; the language of prejudice is no longer an unchallenged norm. Symbols matter; language matters; actions matter.

Guy Woolf no 7 and Stonewall contemplate defeatMike's son Guy Woolf, in the number 7 jersey, contemplates about the match strategy
with the rest of Stonewall FC.

All of the players in the Unity League, however inept or incompetent they may be (and some, like Guy Woolf, are very good indeed) are quiet heroes, and role models. I suspect that almost none of them would recognize themselves as such and would subject me to some ridicule for the suggestion. However, I believe that what they are doing collectively is an important example of affirmative ideals in action. They exemplify how things may change through what the President of the Central European University, Michael Ignatieff calls “the ordinary virtues that give us common cause with the human beings with whom we share this planet.”  [7]

Affirmative Light

In international education we aim to welcome diversity and celebrate difference. We are used to seeing this as a norm, part of the political and ethical air we breathe. Finding examples within the masculine world of professional sports offers not only hope but also an example of how dominant narratives can be altered for the better. The fetid world of homophobia is not inevitable.

Joe Root and Mike Tyson are public figures. What they say matters to their followers, admirers, and other participants in the sports they play. They have the ability to create a more hospitable world, and so do the teams and players in the London Unity League. They are not famous athletes, but they send out an affirmative light that challenges the darkness of bigotry, irrational hatred, and prejudice. They deserve our support and admiration. Whether they would agree with this or not, win or lose, they are, I believe, in the vanguard of those who oppose hatred.

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[1] In the unlikely event that anyone reading this knows anything about the history of cricket I should make it clear that I know that there was a form of international cricket dubbed “timeless Tests.” One such hideous event in South Africa lasted over 12 days and was ultimately abandoned because the English team had a boat to catch. Between 1877 and 1939, 99 timeless matches took place. Perhaps the only good thing about World War II was that the onset of conflict saw the demise of this form of cricket.
[2] The Highlander, January 28, 2018, University of California, Riverside.
[3] I am very grateful to the Manager of Stonewall Thirds, Dan Cuzner, for his comments, suggestions and corrections. There is, as he patiently explained, a Stonewall First and Reserve Team playing at much higher levels. I admire them greatly but have familial loyalty to the titans of the Thirds who grace the LUL! I have also over-simplified the complex structures of LGBTQ+ football in London. More detailed information on the inspirational football team can be found at: https://www.stonewallfc.com/ 
[4] New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969. Police maltreatment led to six days of protests. The Stonewall Riots became a symbol for resistance to harassment and a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
[5] Wednesday, February 20, 2019, Metro, https://metro.co.uk/2019/02/20/its-still-not-safe-for-footballers-to-come-out-but-were-getting-closer-8672639/?ito=cbshare
[6] Think for example of an amalgamation of the best of Tom Brady combined with Usain Bolt on a good day.

[7] The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, 2017 

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Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.

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Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad