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Openly gay rugby referee gets homophobic abuse during match

Letter from a disgusted straight fan brings the taunts against Nigel Owens to light.

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Nigel Owens yellow cards a New Zealand player.
Nigel Owens yellow cards a New Zealand player.
Steve Bardens - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

The Rugby Football Union is investigating homophobic taunts hurled at openly gay referee Nigel Owens during a hotly contested New Zealand vs. England match earlier this month in London.

Keith Wilson, a fan who attended the game won by New Zealand, described the abuse in a letter to the Guardian newspaper:

I went to Twickenham on Saturday to watch the England v All Blacks international. As a lifelong rugby fan, a straight man in his 60s, I could not believe that a bunch of men half my age watching a rugby match in the 21st century could be capable of hurling such nasty, foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse at an openly gay match official. My equally disgusted son is in 30s, but next to him, hearing this vitriol, was a little boy; I felt ashamed.

I did speak to the men after the match, but they were not in a fit state to engage in sensible discussion. I suspect that if it had been in a football match they’d have been thrown out. There was a time when you could trust rugby supporters to take alcohol into a game and behave like grownups. The time has come to treat rugby louts like football louts – no alcohol in the ground, zero tolerance to bigots.

Rugby officials used Wilson's letter to start an investigation that could see abusive fans banished from the stands. Owens, 43, of Wales came out in 2007, and he applauded Wilson for bringing the abuse to light. He told the London Telegraph that social media has only made homophobia worse and that he has considered quitting.

“When you see things that are tweeted by so-called rugby supporters about opposition teams and some of the tweets that I have had, you begin thinking 'bloody hell, are these type of people really in our game?’ " he said.  “I have had homophobic tweets and messages on Facebook from people who are shouting things that I could not repeat in your newspaper. It is creeping into the game and some of the tweets I have had are pretty nasty, really.

“Sometimes you get these comments and read these tweets and you think 'do I really need this? Do I really need to do this job?' It does get you down and I honestly think sometimes like saying 'enough is enough, I will walk away from it all’.

“But then you get support from people and it makes you realize these are the minority and you have to pick yourself up and rise above it. It is not always easy to do that but you have to do it and get on.”

What is positive is that England's coach is welcoming an investigation and that the sports has Owens' back.I hope the guilty are identified and banned from attending matches for life.