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Holyfield versus gays: a new round for homophobia in sport

The boxing star delivered an uppercut to acceptance of homosexuality, but he is losing this fight

The world of sport is taking small but firm steps towards public acceptance of homosexuality, but stars like retired boxing great Evander Holyfield continue to show that the road remains bumpy.

"Being gay ain't different, it's a choice," the former heavyweight world champion said. "You know, handicapped people are born, you can't say because they are born that way you can't fix them."

The man whose ear Mike Tyson famously bit on the ring made the comments on Sunday in the UK edition of "Celebrity Big Brother". The show's makers reprimanded him for his views the next day.

Holyfield's comments were a sucker punch, delivered just as recognition of homosexuality appears to have made substantial progress in sport, almost as much as it has in music, film and politics. And they were met with strong criticism on the Internet.

"It's disheartening to continue to see the wilful ignorance of people inside and outside of sports," said Cyd Zeigler of outsports.com, a website that features sports news from a gay perspective.

"Holyfield throws out these ideas and justifies them as 'opinion', like the racists who once claimed black people were born with tails," Zeigler said of the African-American ex-boxer.

Zeigler was outraged. "People can't just keep hiding behind the Bible and opinion when they spew mean-spirited nonsense, the likes of which have driven people to suicide for generations."

Holyfield "should spend some time working with underprivileged LGBT youth. He'd learn quickly about the lack of choice in people's sexual orientation," Zeigler said. Outsports.com ran the story of Holyfield's comments, ending its account with a knockout blow to the boxer's moralistic attack:

"Holyfield, the great defender of right and wrong, has been married three times and fathered 11 children from six different women."

However, Holyfield is hardly the first sports star to fuel homophobia in men's sport, a macho enclave in which few athletes have come out as gay. He will probably also not be the last.

More and more sportspeople are publicly standing up for sexual freedom, but not all of them do. During Euro 2012, the controversial Italian striker Antonio Cassanomade made headlines after answering a question on whether there were gay players in the Italian national team. Italian media had earlier reported that there were two homosexuals and one bisexual in the team.

"I hope there are none. In any case, it's their problem and nothing to do with me," Cassano said.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, the man who as coach led Brazil to their fourth World Cup title, said in 2006 that he believed a gay player would never be called up for national team duty.

The issue has even been used as a weapon in the long-standing clash of egos between two of the greatest footballers in history. Diego Maradona used Pele's alleged confession that he had lost his virginity to a man to discredit the Brazilian as a sportsman and minimise his own drug abuse problems. "Why do they choose Pele, who lost his virginity to a guy, as one of the best sports stars of the century and leave me out because I use drugs?" the Argentine asked.

Last week, former American football player Chris Kluwe said he was sacked by his team for his public support for homosexual marriage, although the Minnesota Vikings denied it. Kluwe said Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was openly hostile about his opinion.

Priefer "said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible," Kluwe said. Priefer denies it. Still, tolerance is making inroads, as was apparent last year when USNBA player Jason Collins, US footballer Robbie Rogers and British diver Tom Daley, a bronze medallist in the London 2012 Olympics, came out as gay. This week saw another world-class sportsmen step out of the closet in the shape of former Premier League football player and Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger.

And, despite Holyfield's comments, tolerance is making inroads in boxing too: Puerto Rican Orlando Cruz fought to become the first openly gay boxer in history to win a world championship.


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