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Friday, May 6, 2011

Athlete Ally: Rugger Ben Cohen - Pitching for Acceptance

0504-ben-cohen-thBy Ty Nolan -

Gay Icon Ben Cohen Preps for May U.S. Tour

Ben Cohen is a remarkable man — a rugby superstar and World Cup winner. England has rewarded him by naming Ben a Member of the British Empire. He’s a qualified helicopter pilot — and he replaced David Beckham as the Gay Times’ Sports Personality of the Year. He was nominated for a 2011 Logo New Now Next award. He’s won a gay following, not only because of how great he looks in or out of uniform, but because of his proactive role as a straight ally.

Ben is clinically deaf, and has helped publicize video clips specially designed to teach coaches and players specific British Sign Language terms for “rugby,” “tackle,” “attack,” etc. This can help make communication easier with deaf and hearing-impaired players. The clips can be found at In an interview with the UK newspaper The Independent Ben said, “Everyone in rugby knows me as ‘Eh?’ because of my deafness. It didn't stop me from becoming a professional player but it’s never been easy. ... I've also got tinnitus – a permanent ringing in the ears – which doesn't help. If the ability to sign rugby words helps more kids get into the game, it's got to be good.”

0504-ben-cohen-barnBeing deaf is similar in a number of ways to being gay. No one chooses to be deaf, or chooses to be gay. The members of the deaf community, like those of the gay community, are often invisible to members of the general population — not immediately identifiable unless they come out by their actions. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Ben has moved so well into a leadership role to encourage the international sports world to have a greater acceptance of diversity. He was one of the first professional athletes to provide his “It Gets Better” video on behalf of GBLT youth.

In May Ben begins the American leg of his Acceptance Tour, sponsored in part by Compete Sports Media, bringing a message of standing up against homophobia and bullying. His fans in Atlanta, New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle will have an opportunity to meet with him. Compete had the honor of interviewing Ben for our June 2010 issue, and this time we were able to speak with him to find out about his message for America and his plans for expanding his role as a straight ally.

Compete: Sometimes people mistake you for being arrogant when you actually haven’t heard them speaking to you.
Ben: I did something with the England deaf rugby team. I have a 33 percent hearing loss in each ear — later on in my career I’d like to do some more with the deaf rugby team. I’ve had to cope with it. I sometimes miss out on jokes. It’s been difficult sometimes. I watch people’s lips. When you’re out I make eye contact — then your eyes are wandering down to their mouths but with women, they think you’re looking at their breasts, but I’m really looking at their lips.

Compete: You’re kicking off your tour with Beer with Ben events in England that will give you a chance to interact with your fans while also raising funds for charity.
Ben: I was opening up a shop tonight with High and Mighty. It’s a company working alongside with me. Hopefully we’ll get the publicity at each event to make a difference — to stand up against homophobia and bullying. Get that campaign off to a good start.

Compete: Will your events include some sort of formal presentation?
Ben: The good thing about rugby is the players are very accessible after the game in general, so it’s a very personal thing. I’ll do a sort of speech of what we’re going to do and what we want to achieve. It’s very exciting — new territory over the next couple of years. We hope these will become big events making serious money working for the charities we support.

Compete: Looking at your schedule, you’ll be very busy while you’re in the States.
Ben: We’re coming over to do as much as we can. It’s a long way over. It’s a big commitment to raise awareness and to raise money for charity. We want to get as much done as possible for the events. We’ll be doing dinners, rugby and meet and greet. It’s important and it’s what I enjoy doing, spreading the message on the other side of the pond. I won’t do a half-hearted job. I have to be committed or this wouldn’t work.

Compete: You had mentioned elsewhere you might consider retiring to give more time to your foundation. What sort of directions would you like to take if you do retire?
Ben: I have a number of irons in the fire. The foundation is something I’d love to devote my full time on and get the campaign up and firing on all cylinders. We’re getting support. We get contacted daily by celebrities who want to help us. We know we’re going on the right track. I’d like to be full time. I don’t know if it will be another year or two still playing, or if I can hit the ground running with the foundation. This is what I’m passionate about.

Compete: Hudson Taylor is a friend of ours who is doing similar things in terms of being a straight ally. We’ve promoted his site. You’re a big hero to him.
Ben: Hudson is a lovely, lovely guy. I met him in January and what I liked about him, he’s an honest sincere guy and that’s something I’d like to base myself upon, too. He’s level headed – fingers crossed he’ll hopefully go to the Olympics. It’s a lot of hard work in making a difference.

0504-ben-cohen-sharksCompete: Hudson is working as a wrestling coach. Do you have an interest in coaching?
Ben: I’d love to get into coaching, especially into rugby. Rugby’s been my life and it’s something that’s very passionate for me. I have a massive part to play in the community and helping those who are struggling to accept themselves. We need to work on these things to offer an olive branch. Come and join our lovely, fantastic community – the social side or on the field. Join us and make some new friends, gay, straight or whatever. You’re more than welcome.

Compete: The mission of Compete is to use sports as a bridge between the straight and gay communities. In fact, the owners met by playing on a gay rugby team.
Ben: Oh, that’s good to hear. Rugby for me is a very accepting sport — gender, sexual orientation, color, race, size, or shape – it caters to everyone. That’s what makes it a fantastic sport. We have to do our part. We need to have gay and straight people play rugby and really push the quality of rugby. We have to be accepting: if you want to be accepted you have to be accepting. Gay-friendly rugby meant we needed to take a step back and look at it from both sides. You have to confront homophobia to make strides and great gains going forward.

Compete: There are auctions planned during your tour here. Do you have any plans to auction off your autographed jockstrap the way you did last December for GMFA, the British gay men’s health charity, during Gay Sports Day?
Ben: (Laughing) That’s done quite well. I was very surprised. As long as it raises money for charity.

Compete: Any final words for your fans?
Ben: I’m really looking forward to coming over. It’s a learning curve for me and my team. We’re learning all the time. The information, the feedback, the e-mails – the painful stories people go through. It’s astonishing. We’ve gotten some really good people on board making my foundation something that’s very successful in making a difference in people’s lives.

Ben Cohen Acceptance Tour
May 19-21 Atlanta
May 22-24 New York City
May 24-26 Washington, D.C.
May 27-29 Seattle

For more information visit Ben's exclusive Tour blog on Compete Network!

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