In the age of information overload and the ever-insatiable news cycle, live mics are to public figures what cholera was to settlers travelling the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century; an omnipresent threat with the power to debilitate and, in some cases, kill. One sip from the wrong conversational puddle and reputations can be shredded, careers curtailed. For the most part, these fumbles of judgement are made accidentally, recorded in moments of boisterous candour by devices that lie out of sight and out of mind. But rarely, do those running their mouths possess the arrogance or stupidity to utter such harmful things with a wry smirk in a known public sphere.
Last week, boxer Liam Smith sat down for a press conference ahead of his middleweight bout with Chris Eubank Jr. and, in the process, didn’t so much as sip from a cholera-infested pool of discourse, but rather cannonballed into one before ladling up the remaining dregs and using them to boil a broth of dog whistle bigotry. Throughout the uncomfortable junket, Smith repeatedly made insinuations about his opponent’s sexuality in a mocking and disparaging way. At one point, having already claimed to never see Eubank Jr. with a woman, the former light-middleweight champion asked his adversary: “Do you have something you want to tell us?”, to which the latter responded: “It’s a very personal question to ask me directly. You can slide in my DMs or you can do it right now.” Smith, cocky and smarmy, then replied: “I’m not that type of way, mate, I like women.”
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After footage of the exchange was broadcast, Sky Sports presenter Anna Woolhouse was forced to apologise live on air for the ‘offensive’ and ‘homophobic’ language used, while both fighters face an investigation from the British Boxing Board of Control. In the days since, Smith has also issued a statement of his own expressing regret at his line of attack.
“It shouldn’t have been said anyway, but it was a press conference and it was kinda... there’s cameras and like I said there’s millions of people watching”, he told talkSPORT. “So I fully regret the whole buildup and I apologise to anyone who took offence by it. I’m not a homophobe, I come from a good family.”
The extent to which Smith’s apology is sincere is something only he will know. Some would argue that regardless of how sorry he is, the damage has already been inflicted. It’s hard not to wonder what he would he have said or done if Eubank, rather than handling the situation with the relative dignity that he did, had instead called his opponent’s bluff and said that he was gay. Would Smith have doubled down in his derision if he had been talking to a person who he knew to be homosexual, or would he have backtracked in mortified cowardice? Either way, to dangle sexuality as a cheap insult is pathetic, and his implication, earnest or otherwise, was a tired and detrimental one; homosexuality does not equate weakness or a lack of masculinity, despite the innuendo of Smith’s schoolyard digs.
Now, almost 500 words into this article, you might be wondering why it is here at all, on a site dedicated to football writing. I’ll tell you. Shortly after Smith stopped Eubank by TKO in the fourth round of their clash on Saturday night, Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher posted a photo of himself and the fighter to his Twitter account. Alongside the image, he wrote: “What a performance”.
This was before Smith had so much as hinted at any remorse, and there was no acknowledgment on Carragher’s part of the openly homophobic comments that his friend had made just days prior. Obviously, not everybody has to condemn every reprehensible thing all of the time, but it is worth remembering that sometimes the best contribution a person can make to a conversation is silence. Nobody would have batted an eyelid had Carragher not posted a photo with a man who had smugly ridiculed the LGBTQ+ community just 48 hours early, but by choosing to do so, he made it clear that he didn’t really care about his pal’s comments.
There’s nothing wrong with loyalty, or even a bit of pride in a local lad done good, but I can safely say that on the off chance that your best mate or your next door neighbour wins a fight and outs themselves as a homophobe in the same week, the only reason you should be using social media, if at all, is to condemn the latter action.
Carragher’s careless (and that’s giving him a sizeable slice of the benefit of the doubt) tweet undermines so much of the rhetoric that football as a sport has been eager to cultivate in recent years. Campaigns like Rainbow Laces matter for little when one of the most recognisable faces in the English game espouses one thing and does another. One of the bizarre contradictions about the words we speak is that positive ones are so often hollow, while the negative so rarely are. Faux malice, after all, serves little purpose.
In all likelihood, Carragher probably didn’t think when he shared a quick photo of him and Smith to his thousands of followers, but that’s kind of the problem. It just goes to show how casually matters of homophobic abuse are still regarded by many, and speaks to the climate that professional - predominantly men’s - sport continues to exist in. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that there are so few openly gay footballers.