Ben Cohen :: Athlete, Advocate, Gentleman
There’s a saying that explains the differences between soccer and rugby--two sports that many Americans may find mysterious, but about which Europeans, and a growing number of fans in the United States, are fanatical. Soccer, the saying goes, is a gentleman’s sport that is played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan sport that is played by gentlemen.
World Cup-winning rugby star and equality advocate Ben Cohen would seem to embody the latter half of that saying. Just over two weeks ago Cohen retired from the sport and launched his StandUp Foundation to combat homophobia and bullying of all sorts, but especially to counter anti-gay sentiment in the sports world. In that short amount of time, Cohen’s initiative has made headlines--and made the already famously gay-friendly athlete, himself the married, heterosexual father of twins, an even bigger hero to the GLBT community.
Cohen arrived in Seattle for Magnitude, a tournament of North American rugby teams scheduled to take place over Memorial Day Weekend that was organized by local team the Seattle Quake. Since he was going to be in town, Cohen also accepted an invitation from Microsoft Political Action Committee division to speak at the corporation’s headquarters in Redmond, a town near Seattle.
EDGE was ushered onto the Microsoft campus by Senior Attorney J.D. Fugate, who works in the Microsoft’s Legal and Corporate Affairs division. Fugate explained the chain of cause and effect that led to Cohen’s May 27 noontime appearance, which included boxed lunches for attendees: Another Microsoft employee, Jeff Wilson, who is stationed in Britain, formerly served as the president of a local gay rugby club, and currently serves as the secretary for Secretary of the International Gay Rugby Association.
Cohen’s Seattle trip for the tournament, Microsoft’s long standing gay-friendly policies and work environment, and Cohen’s new career as the world’s first straight athlete to establish a philanthropic foundation for the GLBT community seemed too perfect a fit for any of the players involved to pass up.
EDGE rode to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, a town near Seattle, with Fugate and his carpool van of Microsoft employees. Fugate recollected how, when Kobe Bryant hurled a homophobic slur at a referee last month, Cohen was among those to decry the insult. "That’s when you come to an inflection point," Fugate said. "The question is, what happens next? Do others join you in standing up? Or are you hanging in the wind, all alone?"
One of the others in the van pool had heard of Cohen. "But he’s straight," she exclaimed. "Why does he care?"
That’s a question Cohen gets a lot these days. The athlete told British newspaper the Guardian, which ran an article on him on May 15, "I have reached the top in my sport. It has been an incredible journey and has put me in the privileged position I am in today to be able to work on these exciting new projects through the StandUp Brand."
This was not boasting on Cohen’s part. He and his team won the Rugby World Cup in 2003--a feat of athleticism similar to the one accomplished by his uncle, George Cohen, his father’s brother. George Cohen was a pro soccer player whose team was victorious in that sport’s World Cup event in 1966.
But tragedy struck the family when, in 2000, Ben Cohen’s father Peter Cohen tried to intervene in an assault that several men were carrying out against another man outside the nightclub that Peter Cohen ran. After suffering a vicious beating himself, Peter Cohen died.
Now Ben Cohen, with two young children of his own, is determined to make the world a better place. He’s chosen bullying--and, more specifically, homophobic bullying and homophobia in sports--as the area in which he will focus his efforts.
"What we’re doing is modeled on LiveStrong," Cohen told EDGE just prior to his speech, referring to the charity founded by Lance Armstrong. "The idea is that the foundation will outlive me."
The foundation is pursuing financial underwriting not just from grants and donations, but also from the sale of merchandise, as well as a host of innovative, and hopefully lucrative, ideas--some of them, such as a reality show themed around bullying, seemingly a bit out there. But who knows? It may not be intuitively obvious that a show following such a theme could be commercially successful, but--as this correspondent’s husband later put it--who could have guessed that reality programs built around the struggle of overweight people trying to shed pounds would attract ratings?
As for why he cares about the issue--aside from having seen first-hand the effects of violence on his own family--Cohen told EDGE that it’s a matter of allowing people to be who and what they are: Letting them live lives of dignity and integrity, without a need to lie at every turn.
"People should be able to live honestly," Cohen said. "I want that for myself; I’m an honest person." By helping to combat homophobia, Cohen strives to help set the social climate at a place where GLBTs are afforded the chance to share in the same kind of fundamental honesty that heterosexuals enjoy.
Moreover, Cohen has expressed concern over the way that young GLBTs are harassed and even assaulted just for being gay. From his standpoint as an athlete, Cohen seems to see such behavior as not only not fair--but not sporting.
"In my view, rugby is a very inclusive sport," Cohen told the Guardian. "Everyone can get involved in one way or another, so I will be using it as a vehicle to drive my message of acceptance out to people from all walks of life, everywhere. There is a lot of work to be done. Attitudes need to change. Young people should not be bullied into taking their own lives. That is what is happening and it needs to stop." Cohen isn’t the sort to simply voice the sentiment and then do nothing. He’s evidently the sort who sees a need--a goal, if you will--and then drive toward answering it.
Cohen is a large man with an amiable, friendly demeanor. He has presence--but not, as yet, much speaking experience, at least not when it comes to his new vocation.
"It’s taking me out of my comfort zone," Cohen told EDGE, visibly nervous. "I can talk in front of thousands of people about rugby, and it’s a walk in the park. But this... well, it’s a bit different." He glanced around the room. Judging from the happy and appreciative expressions of those in attendance, he had nothing to worry about.
"A week ago last Sunday I retired from rugby," Cohen told his audience from the front of the room a few minutes later, in his strong Northern English accent. The sport, he said, was "like controlled car crashes every day, and my body has really taken its toll. It was time to retire and start the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, which I am chairman of now, and it’s something I am very passionate about."
Cohen proceeded to give his speech, recounting his father’s brutal murder and the effect it had on him. "It;s something that I don’t mind talking about," he said. "I know that the emotion I’m speaking from will probably effect others to stand up against homophobia and violence." His father’s murder, Cohen said, gave him "the hunger and desire to drive me on to become the best player in the world for my dad"--and what he wanted for his children in turn, namely, the security to feel that they could talk to him about anything.
"I’ve found that doesn’t happen for everyone across the board," Cohen said. "I’ve got a big gay following," Cohen added, citing 160,000 fans and a Twitter audience of about 18,000. "The information and emails that people send us is actually very sad--they haven’t got that infrastructure of family to turn [to]."
A May 13 New York Times article on Cohen and American athlete Hudson Taylor, also a heterosexual advocate seeking to counter homophobia in the sports world, said that some of the emails Cohen gets describe gay athletes whose talents are shoved into the closet along with the truth about their sexual orientation, with young gays either quitting teams or following a sports equivalent of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
"It brings me to bloody tears," Cohen told the Times.
At Microsoft, Cohen continued his speech. Accompanied by slides, he recounted the press his foundation has already received on both sides of the Atlantic, and took note of the prevalence of homophobia and homophobic harassment in schools. The slides cited a May, 2011 article from The Journal of School Health on the apparent correspondence between such harassment and depression, risky behavior, suicidal behavior, and the transmission of STIs, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"It’s an issue here, it’s an issue in England, and across the globe," Cohen said. "It’s time to make a stand, it really is time to make a noise about it. I am in a privileged position to have a voice and to make a difference."
Cohen noted that already sports and entertainment stars had stood up with his foundation. "We know that we’re doing the right thing, we know that we’re making the right noises. Hopefully we’ll continue growing and making a difference.
"And I’ll be leading by example," Cohen added. He flashed a slide onto a screen above his head, where a baby elephant nestled beneath its mother’s belly. "As a world class athlete, it is not enough simply to have a strong body, but a strong character, which matters more," Cohen added. Turning to regard the slide, he added, "And that’s a really nice picture, too."
Following his speech, Cohen took questions from the audience. How did he respond to the anti-anti-bullying crowd, people arguing that bullying should not be countered and gay youth should not be protected? Would the StandUp Foundation be partnering with other groups? (To an extent, it already has: the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride, The Trevor Project, and the Human Rights Campaign.) What specific strategies would Cohen use in pursuit of his goal?
Cohen, who is clinically deaf, sometimes needed to have the questions repeated. The gist of his answers generally came down to some variation of: The foundation is still new, things are still being formulated and put together. But there was a sense that the questions, and the concerns behind them, were--or would become--part of the conversation about just how the foundation would look and operate in its final form.
Fugate, sitting next to EDGE in the audience, had a question of his own that he did not have a chance to put to the athlete and advocate.
"Given how he’s working to secure respect for gays, how does he feel about some gays objectifying him as a sex symbol?" Fugate had wondered aloud, before the speech.
Cohen himself has addressed this in the press. Speaking of how he imagined many of his "big gay following" saw him, Cohen told the New York Times, "They probably see me as a sex object, I suppose."
That’s is almost certainly true--the New York Times article went on to note, "His shirtless photographs have done little to squelch his popularity"--but the big, friendly man... the gentleman... who spent the last fifteen or twenty minutes of his appearance shaking hands and chatting with widely grinning Microsoft employees seemed not to mind at all.