Ex-England rugby player Ben Cohen has founded the Stand Up Foundation, tasked with raising awareness and tackling anti-bullying and homophobia in sport. He is also ambassador for the Bingham Cup, a gay and inclusive rugby tournament taking place in Manchester this weekend.
I met up with him to talk about his motivations, activism and, of course, rugby.
You do a lot of anti-bullying campaigning particularly in the area of sport, including the setting up of The Stand Up Foundation. Do you think there is still a problem with bullying in sport?
"I do think there is bullying in sport. At a professional level, not so much but at a lower level definitely. There is definitely education needed at that level. People are deterred from sport at a lower level and are not taking part because they feel they are going to be bullied. A lot depends on where you, as to how likely you are to be bullied. Particularly if someone is perceived to be gay then depending on what part of the country you are from or if you're from a religious background or anything like that then sometimes it can play a major part. Not that we (The Stand Up Foundation) get involved in religion or politics, it's not about that but it can play a part."
As an amateur rugby player myself I see the sport of rugby as having quite an inclusive attitude, certainly in comparison to football, do you think things have improved or does the sport of rugby in particular still have a long way to go?
"I think that rugby is very inclusive because it takes all sizes to play. I think it has a different approach too. It probably has always been inclusive. It really leads to way and you have to give credit where it is due. It is a great example of showing respect on the pitch and when you come off the pitch as well. Players leave that pitch with their heads held high."
The Bingham Cup looks a fantastic tournament, bringing together gay and inclusive rugby teams from across the World, are you pleased The Stand Up Foundation has come on board as an official partner and yourself as an ambassador?
"Yeah I also helped the Bingham Cup go to Manchester. It was either Sydney or Manchester and we managed to win the bid to bring to Manchester. I think it's fantastic for Manchester and fantastic for the game of rugby. So to be an ambassador and be part of it is fantastic. I'm really, really happy to be doing that."
Any plans to dust off the boots and have a run out at the Bingham Cup?
"I might do. Although, I played football this morning for 90 minutes and my legs are absolutely killing me but yeah I most probably will."
Twelve Premiership rugby clubs are donating signed balls to be auctioned at the Bingham Cup with the proceeds going to the Stand Up Foundation. Have you had a lot of support from within the rugby community for your cause?
"Yeah, they're going to be signing up to the Home Office Charter. They have an obligation, all sporting clubs have an obligation to their local communities and they have to be very inclusive to all. Sexual orientation, colour of skin, anyone who is perceived to be different they have to be very accepting of all natures. It's very good for rugby to be doing this and supporting this. To get them to give us a ball and the donations to go to the (Stand Up) Foundation is lovely."
On the flipside to that, have you found any negative attitudes towards the causes you promote from any of those within you're the rugby community?
"Honestly I haven't no. I've had nothing but support which has been really good. We know it's needed. It's the world first anti-bullying foundation dedicated to LGBT bullying but also for anyone who is perceived to be different. It very relevant right now and we know it is needed. Especially when you see adults coming up and saying "My kid is being bullied". It really is needed. So we've received massive support and it's been brilliant."
The subject of homophobia is something you are keen to tackle; do you think Gareth Thomas coming out has aided your cause in terms of having a positive, high profile gay rugby icon in the public eye?
"I think it has just shown that rugby generally doesn't have a problem with it. He was very accepted as being a world-class player and that showed people will respect you for your talent not your sexual orientation. Which should be a given. We work very closely with Nike, we have a good partnership with them about eradicating homophobia and making sport a fair place for all. Which it should be."
Being so closely associated with anti-homophobic activism and being a gay icon do you find your own sexuality is subject to scrutiny more than, say, other players involved with different charities?
"Yeah, people sometimes want to say that. I've been around long enough now and have a following who understand I'm happily married and comfortable in my sexuality and I have two beautiful girls. The bigger picture that people start to understand is that me being straight is the most powerful thing. Me bridging the gap from the straight community and the gay community is very powerful. There is nobody else in the world doing it right now and especially a successful sportsman. Once you explain that people say "Oh I see what you mean" .For me being straight and a successful sportsman and really breaking down stereotypes and driving a cultural change is creating a cultural movement. Going into schools and protecting that next generation is very powerful."
You have said previously that one of your main motivations in setting up The Stand Up Foundation was the loss of your father in a violent incident whilst he was protecting a colleague who was being bullied. Does his memory still drive the activism you do?
"Yes. Basically my Dad stood up to bullying and lost his life protecting someone else. It drove me to be the best player in the world and win the World Cup (in 2003) but certainly the emotions that death caused in my family was devastating. It was horrible. I don't like bullying full stop and I know that it wrecks live. It is not just about here and now either, it stays with people for the rest of their lives. There may be opportunities for me to make a difference and that's what drives me. Drives me because I'm trailblazing, there's nobody else doing this in the world and then opportunity is there to create something really special and make a mark. It's huge."
On a lighter note, you must have been delighted with England's form in the Six Nations?
"I think it finished it successfully. They turned it round and I don't think they were playing a fantastic brand of rugby but they won. We'll have to see how Stuart Lancaster gets on managing that transition to make these players play in a system and a structure but also go out with that free spirit to play rugby"
Do you think Stuart Lancaster is a good appointment as coach?
"I think he's fantastic guy and that he should be in and around rugby but not as head guy. I think we need more experience to bring him on as a head coach but also to be in and around with a view to him being head coach eventually.
Kind of like the Clive Woodward/Andy Robinson model?
"Yeah exactly. Maybe look at Nick Mallet or Wayne Smith who have been around a bit and could maybe bring him on with their experience especially within tough times in the sport. Like when you're going to a World Cup or a summer tour and how to bring on players."
Speaking of the summer tour, how do you rate England's chances in South Africa this summer?
"It's going to be a tough ask. They've got a really good squad actually and have some good players going over but I think it's going to be tough. Really tough. It will be a good learning curve for them all."
Ben Cohen is an ambassador for the Bingham Cup, the world championship of gay and inclusive rugby teams. The Bingham Cup is proudly sponsored by Gaydar.net.
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