PARIS – For rugby referee extraordinaire Nigel Owens, it's no real surprise that so few others in professional sports have followed his lead and come out as gay. His informed guess: the traditionally macho worlds of rugby and football are ready to accept gay stars but it is young athletes themselves, likely still struggling against their sexual identity, who are not.
Are there lots in the closet?
"Definitely," he says. "I know there are."
Owens has seen first-hand how dark that place can be. Early one April morning 19 years ago, the-then deeply unhappy young man who wanted so desperately not to be gay, who suffered from bulimia and had become hooked on steroids, slipped out of his parents' house, climbed the mountain that overlooks his village in Wales and tried to kill himself with pills and whisky.
"Funnily enough," he says, the overdose saved him by putting him in a coma.
"If I hadn't done that," he explains matter-of-factly, "I would no doubt have pulled the trigger" of his loaded shotgun.
Now an entertaining, bulldog-fit and disarmingly honest 43-year-old, Owens says young rugby players, some of them turning pro, seek him out for advice, confiding, "'I think I'm gay, Nigel, you know? How does it happen? How did I become like this? Or what do I do?'"
Some subsequently clam up; he may not hear from them again for months, even years.
"But it's still there. It niggles at them. And in a couple of years' time, they come back and say, 'I'm not coping with this,'" he said. "Even before being afraid of coming out, they are afraid of being who they are. They don't want to be who they are. Like I was."
If not for the hook of Owens' sexuality, some readers wouldn't have made it this far into a story on rugby or refereeing. That shows how much progress remains to be made before men and women in sports won't have news value or stand out for being openly gay.
Really, this should be about Owens the referee, not the gay referee. Respected for his adroit, no-nonsense management of big matches and big men, and celebrated for scolding players, Owens shot up the ranks in the past decade to become one of the most experienced international referees in rugby history, his 56 test matches (and counting) more than any other Welshman.
He likes to wear the same "lucky" pants, a Christmas gift from cousins, and listen to the same Welsh hymn before every game. This weekend, he will run the touchline as a Six Nations assistant referee during Ireland vs. France in Dublin. Top referees' games are generally televised live. Having his decisions replayed and picked apart by TV pundits every week has helped make him philosophical.
"Pressure on referees now is massive," he says. "People are less forgiving."
"You can't go into refereeing to be liked," he said. "Just be yourself, do the best you can and people will then respect you."
His first full international, Japan against Ireland in 2005, was also the year he finally told his mother (he couldn't face telling his father), friends and refereeing colleagues he was gay. Owens first spoke about it publicly in a Welsh radio interview before the 2007 World Cup. Coming out, he says, was important for his subsequent success.
"A happy referee is a good referee, and I wasn't happy," Owens says. With no false modesty, he includes himself among "five or six referees" capable of officiating rugby's biggest game — the Oct. 31 final at this year's World Cup in England and Wales.
"I'd love to do the final," he says. "The pinnacle of anybody's career."
In this Associated Press interview before his steady refereeing of France's 15-8 victory against Scotland in the Six Nations opening weekend, bashful smirks scuttled across Owens' face when reminded of some of his funny one-liners and acid put-downs of players. Caught by television microphones that rugby makes referees wear, which football would benefit from copying, these Owens-isms have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
He told two scuffling players they should go off the field if they "want a cwtsh" — Welsh for "cuddle." He collectively chewed out two dozen beefy players with a school-masterly, "You're adults. You'll be treated like it as long as you behave like it." The withering phrase "this is not soccer," which Owens used in silencing a player who had the temerity to question his calls, has since been immortalized on T-shirts. Last year, in blowing his whistle on a terribly crooked line-out throw, he chirped, "I'm straighter than that one."
Owens insists such quips are always spontaneous, never pre-planned. The referee's challenge is to be "firm without being officious."
"When you've got 30 men on the field going at each other hammer and tongs," he said, banging fist into other hand for emphasis, "there will come a time when you (expletive) have got to be in control of that or it will just become a war."
"I certainly don't mean it to sound patronizing, and I don't think it is really," he said. "It's a bit like being a good teacher. You should never talk down to the kids but at the end of the day you are in control of these children and they need to be kept in control."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester