The Rugby Football League (RFL) held a reception in parliament last night to launch a campaign to welcome gay fans and players.
The event was hosted by Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland and attended by a number of MPs from all parties and two players from Sheffield Eagles.
Former Great Britain Rugby Union Lions captain Gareth Thomas, who came out last year, was unable to attend due to illness.
However, he sent a message to the event: “All sports have a significant role to play in challenging homophobia and I am delighted to show my support to Rugby League and the RFL which has made such strong commitments to taking important issues like this seriously and is leading the way in terms of inclusivity.”
The RFL is the first and only sports body to be included on Stonewall’s annual diversity index and is launching a booklet to inform Rugby League clubs on how to deal with homophobia in the sport. It is also developing a new reporting service for homophobic abuse at matches, posters and DVDs.
Sheffield Eagles players Corey Hanson and Mitch Stringer presented new kit carrying the ‘Homophobia Tackle It!’ slogan, which will be worn during a home game in February, which is LGBT History Month.
Mr Stringer told PinkNews.co.uk that players hoped to be able to go into local schools to talk about homophobia and build a fanbase among LGBT people.
Lou Englefield of Pride Sports, which has been working with the RFL, said: “They’ll be wearing the shirts for a match in February. The fixtures aren’t out yet. We’re hoping to make this an annual event with a different team each year wearing the shirts.”
Opening the event, Mr Mulholland said: “Rugby League is perceived to be one of the toughest and most ferocious sports anyone could play. Whilst this is true in terms of the way the game is played, Rugby League has a history of being one of the most welcoming sports around.
“I am proud to play a sport that anyone can play irrespective of ability, gender, race, sexuality or background. It’s a testament to the work of all involved in the sport.”
Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone praised the sport for its “amazing message” and added: “This burns a great big hole in that horrible [homophobic] culture.
“They’re setting a really positive example that all other sports bodies should be proud to follow.”
Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill called the initiative “groundbreaking” and added: “For many, sport is still one of the last great bastions of homophobia but we warmly welcome RFL’s commitment to openly challenging prejudice and unfairness.”