Known for his charity work as much as his rugby skills, World Champion Ben Cohen talks to Domenico Sansalone about how he turned his father’s untimely death into an exciting charity cause, why he fights to make bullying a thing of the past and what is really going through his head during his sexy photoshoots.
What was your impetus for starting your charity Stand Up?
Basically, the road to where I am today, in many different respects is because, I got a phone call on Friday the 13th of all days and my dad had basically been beaten within an inch of his life protecting someone at a nightclub my brother owned. To cut a very long story short, he died a month later of his injuries. Stand Up day is now on November 14th, the day my dad died.
I found out that a guy in France had set up a fan page and I had about 37,000 fans that were all men. It was a surprise! I started to read emails and listen to people’s stories. I found them very similar to my own in many ways because these people and I were suffering at the hands of other people. A lot of people on Facebook were getting bullied because of their sexual orientation.
In late 2010, I wanted to do charity and I wanted to do something that I was very passionate about so I set up the foundation. I would not have been able to do it without the support from the LGBT community.
Your father’s death was horrible and very sudden. What was it like coping with that?
We couldn’t bury him for about fifteen months because there was a murder trial. They had to take pictures of his body for examinations; it was pretty gruesome. He was only 58 at the time. I didn’t go off the rails but rugby was a place where I could get rid of my anger. Rugby is a very physical sport, in the right way, not in a bad way. It was a good place to be to get my aggression out. I used this to redefine my goals and be the best rugby player in the world and win the World Cup, which I went on to do. I used the anger to win a World Cup for my dad.
They honored him at a Twickenham match. How did that feel?
The week he died, they wore black armbands and took a minute of silence for him, which was lovely. I found it very touching at the time and very nice. My dad would have loved that.
Did you ever get bullied yourself?
No, never. I witnessed it and I never liked it. We need to educate the next generation and also educate teachers to educate the children that bullying is wrong.
Slowly more sportsmen are coming out. Do you think it’s getting easier?
I think there is a witch-hunt for a sportsman to come out. I think that everyone wants a sportsman to come out. I think 8 or 9 times out of 10, if a sportsman came out, he would get the respect from the other players but the managers and the agents are from a different generation and probably don’t have the education and don’t understand it as much; not all but maybe some. How are the crowds going to perceive it? Are the crowds going to use it to ridicule him on the pitch? You don’t know.
Rupert Everett once said that he would tell young gay actors not to come out. What advice would you give to a young rugby player thinking about coming out?
This is my personal opinion; if a young player comes out too early then they could get discriminated against and not necessarily by his teammates but it could be by his manager or whatever. But you might find yourself being the best player on the team to not being part of the squad, being on the bench and then getting dismissed. I think coming out when you’re on the top of your game will have the biggest impact and most positive impact on youngsters. Like Gareth Thomas, because you are gay doesn’t make any difference to how you play on the pitch. But the downside to that is that you have to live a lie and you have to cover your tracks and living a lie is hard work because you have to have a really good memory and that’s not nice. If you have a happy home then you will have a happy pitch. If you have an unhappy home then it can really play havoc on your professional career. My advice would be to understand the environment that you’re in and would that environment be a good one to come out in?
Why are the English jerseys are much tighter than the rest of the worlds and appear to be made of Lycra! And how do they feel about wearing mainly white? In the mud!
When you play for England you get two shirts per game, one at half time and one at the beginning of the game. It’s tradition! I like tradition. I like the fact that you wear an England shirt and it’s white. They’re not the only team to wear a tight shirt. Every professional club wears tight jerseys and it’s like a material that is grip proof. You can’t generally grip it unless it’s baggy. It was better than what we were going to wear in 2002 World Cup, it was going to be all in ones but they weren’t allowed.
Gay fans can be fickle. One moment you’re in and the next you’re out, just ask David Beckham. Do you worry about your gay fans turning their attention to a younger sportsman?
The only criticism I get is not from the straight people, it’s from the gay community but the cause is not just about LGBT, it’s broader than that. Yes, we get a lot of support from the LGBT community but there is nobody else doing what we are doing. The day I announced that I was doing a cause, my fan page went up by 10,000 people instantly so the support is there and it’s needed because there is nobody else doing this. Having a cause and being nice to look at is a bonus really. It’s not about supporting me as a sex symbol, it’s about supporting the cause.
You’ve done various modeling gigs. Sometimes when you’re modeling do you ever think; I can’t believe I’m doing this?
I’m thinking I need to go on a diet! It’s one of those things, I don’t mind doing it. It’s about selling products, it’s about getting the message out there. It’s about raising support and ultimately about raising money to support the cause.
Do you hang your calendar up in your house?
[Laughs] I have a calendar up in my house somewhere.
You once donated a jock strap to a gay charity. Was it new or used?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was new. Someone just sent it so I signed it. Just trying to make a difference, that’s what it’s about.
You played rugby in France, parlez-vous Francais?
Not a thing. I don’t speak French nor does my wife. I think they have a fantastic way of life over there. I think their whole approach to life is different from other parts of the world and I like that. We were in the back of beyond and it was difficult with the twins as they were just newborns. When you tried to speak French, they wanted to speak English so it was quite difficult.
You are also clinically deaf. What’s it been like working in sports with a disability?
I didn’t let it be an issue. The deafness is not the problem; it’s the tinnitus that stops me from hearing s’s and t’s. I have to make sure I read people’s mouths. It’s something I just get used to I’m afraid. You have to live with it. It’s generally very loud on the pitch, which helps.
Would Wales have won the World Cup if Sam Warburton hadn’t been given a red card?
I think that was a big turning point. I think that they had an opportunity of winning the World Cup. It’s not common that the best team going into the World Cup win it. I think that Wales play fantastic rugby and they think they had an opportunity of winning and it played a massive part. I don’t remember if it was a right decision or not. I don’t think it was but they had a bloody good opportunity to do it.
Who do you think will win the next Six Nations 2013?
I don’t know. I can see Wales coming back and fighting. I don’t know is the answer, I really don’t know.
What was it like retiring from rugby?
I retired for a cause. I followed my passion so in that respect, it was quite easy. There is always an issue with the transition from player’s life to work life. Some people get on with it, some people don’t. I’ve had a fantastic transition.
What’s next for you?
There is a lot happening within the foundation and my goal for the foundation is to be the biggest contributor to LGBT causes in the world and we want to make the biggest difference possible and change people’s mindset and thinking and hopefully we can do that.
check out the website at: www.standupfoundation.com or http://www.worldrugbyshop.com/standup.html