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How rugby is aiming to rewrite its soundtrack on inclusivity

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Devin Ibanez is reluctant to use grandiose terms like epiphany or near-death experience, but it’s hard to understate quite how profoundly one tackle in March 2017 altered his outlook. Playing for Scarborough RUFC in the seventh tier of English rugby, a shoulder caught his Adam’s apple and left him gasping for air. After being taken to A&E, where they discovered a puncture in his airway, Ibanez was told by the doctor that he was lucky to be alive. “In that moment, I took stock of everything that was meaningful to me,” he says. “I thought about what I wanted from my life beyond rugby and that’s when the seed was planted that I’d become an openly gay player.” 

Three years later, having signed for the New England Free Jacks while constantly weighing the threat of what felt like global judgement against one man’s hope, Ibanez became the first active Major League Rugby player to come out. “Signing that professional contract felt like my ultimate career accomplishment,” he says. “I didn’t want coming out to be the only part of my identity.” The response to his Instagram post was unexpected and overwhelming, a tide of support that washed away his fears of being cast as an outsider. “You tend to only focus on the negative outcomes and almost become obsessed with them,” he says. “I didn’t take time to consider the positives. Hopefully, now, that’s one less fear someone else will have as well.”

While Ibanez’s fears were proven incorrect, they were founded in harsh truths throughout his career. At Scarborough, he had kept his sexuality secret only for his teammates to find out he was in a relationship with someone living in the small town. Soon, a “banter culture” emerged, with some players making derogatory remarks, once even as Ibanez was coaching a group of children.

In February 2020, a study by Harlequins and Monash University found that two-thirds of players had heard homophobic abuse during training or matches in the space of a fortnight. It also found that 31 per cent of players didn’t want that culture to change.

“[At one club] I had a coach who, if you made a mistake, would say ‘you should go and play for the Ironsides’,” Ibanez says. “They were the local inclusive club. Subconsciously, it gave that message that lesser players play with the gay players, there’s a constant link being thrown around that you’re less of a man. Even though I’ve had extremely supportive teammates and coaches, the same care doesn’t go into creating an environment where people actually feel safe to come out.”

At the peak of the English game, Harlequins are successfully attempting to change that. A year ago, they hosted the sport’s first Pride Game with the aim of celebrating LGBTQ+ participants and a guard of honour featured amateur players from gay-inclusive clubs like the King’s Cross Steelers. Recently, the Harlequins Foundation also launched an LGBTQ+ supporters’ association, becoming the first Premiership club to do so.

“Our intent has been to spark conversations so people can feel more comfortable being themselves,” says James Swanson, who has been instrumental to the project. “The Pride Game galvanised people and gave them the confidence that they’d be welcomed wholeheartedly. They weren’t sure where to go or if there was a place for them but now they know there’s a safe environment where they can be themselves.”

For the Steelers, the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby club, that has always been their guiding principle. Founded over a conversation between friends at a pub in Kings Cross in 1995, they offered a sense of community bereft of the usual stereotypes that left many players feeling scared or unsupported. Back then, their inception was greeted by the tabloid headline ‘Harliqueens’. Now, they are the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary that will air on Amazon Prime on Friday, charting the personal journeys of three players.

“As Drew [a Steelers’ prop] says in the film, you can come to the rugby club and still be brutal on the pitch but then be flamboyant as a drag queen or be able to talk about mental health,” says Matt Webb, the club’s chairman. “I think it’s helped people to realise that there are different facets to rugby. It’s not just about toxic masculinity. We have straight players who’ve joined us because they don’t like the culture at some clubs. If say they’re a teacher and they’re telling children to be polite and friendly, they don’t feel comfortable being in an environment where language is being used that wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else.” 

It might only be one element, but changing rugby’s soundtrack is vital to it becoming a voice for inclusivity. “If there is ever homophobic language used and we’re made aware of it, we’ll always investigate it and take action because it’s so important to set that example,” says Sue Day MBE, a former England international who now serves as the Rugby Football Union’s chief finance officer. 

Even with role models like Gareth Thomas, the former Wales international, and the now-retired referee Nigel Owens, Day stresses that it’s just as important to ensure that coaches at grassroots level understand how to include players so rugby’s next generation can benefit from a prevailing culture that’s more open and accepting. “It’s programmes like that which we’re working hard to promote,” she says. “So when you’re a kid at a club for the first time, it’s more talked about and relevant. It can feel like people in positions of power care about you and want to make things better. People like the Steelers have really helped to make it part of the conversation. How to include LGBTQ+ people is not a new idea, it’s on everyone’s agenda.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Webb, who’s worked closely with the RFU, the Harlequins Foundation and the Exeter Chiefs in order to put those aims into practice. “Rugby has always been tolerant, now it needs to be welcoming and inclusive and celebrate the diversity in it,” he says. “I’ve been called all sorts of things on the pitch but it’s not me I’m worried about. It’s the 13-year-old who hears it after training. They’re the ones that could end up captaining England 15 years later. You’ve got to focus on the grassroots that feed into the clubs, the professionals and the England camp. If inclusion and tolerance and diversity are at the forefront of everything they do, someone can come out and be authentic throughout their whole rugby journey.”

“By doing that, we can also take away the media sensationalism around who’s going to be the first [active Premiership player to come out],” adds Swanson. “Then, if they want to be on that platform, there’s an environment in place to support them.”

For much of his career, when he wrestled with the idea of coming out publicly, Ibanez doubted whether that type of welcoming structure could ever be in place. “There’s a reason those hesitations exist but it gives me hope,” he says. “I hope other people see the response I got and think they can still be celebrated for being a talented rugby player. It is possible to come out and be celebrated and not be alienated in the way you fear.”

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Major League

The moment a rugby legend walked off the field maybe for the last time

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By Rugby Onslaught

The curtain may have come down on Matt Giteau’s legendary rugby career with another trophy to his collection, after guiding LA Giltinis to Major League Rugby victory on Sunday.

The 38-year-old Australian was named man of the match in the 31-17 win over Rugby ATL and the LA Memorial Coliseum.

It is uncertain whether the 103-cap Wallaby will return next season or retire, and he is yet to confirm where his future lies. But it was an emotional send-off he received when he left the field in the final ten minutes of the match, embracing his longtime Wallabies teammate Adam Ashley-Cooper as he walked off. The 37-year-old Ashley-Cooper has confirmed that he will retire after LA’s victory, and Giteau may follow him.

After the match, Giteau was quizzed about his future but still could not give any confirmation about his career, which has now spanned two decades and saw him make his Australia debut in 2002.

“I don’t know [what’s next], I think it’s going to be pretty hard to top this one,” the former Heineken Champions Cup winner with Toulon said.

“It’s definitely Adam Ashley-Cooper’s last game, for me I don’t know, this is fairytale stuff.

“It’s hard to answer because there’s so many emotions at the moment.”

 



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The Sports Report: Clippers in familiar playoff territory

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Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Andrew Greif on the Clippers: The Kawhi Leonard free-agent sweepstakes have begun again.

The first-team All-NBA forward is now an unrestricted free agent after declining his player option with the Clippers that would have been worth $36 million next season, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who is not authorized to speak publicly.

The decision was not unexpected and could be the precursor of Leonard returning to the team on a new contract when free agency opens Monday afternoon. Veteran center Serge Ibaka did exercise his option on Saturday.

Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard

(Associated Press)

Leonard signaled the likelihood he would choose this route in December when he noted that, if healthy, “the best decision” would be to enter unrestricted free agency. The chief reasoning is not necessarily because of a wandering eye but timing — Leonard has completed his 10th NBA season, making him eligible to sign a maximum contract worth 35% of a team’s salary cap. If he re-signs with the Clippers, he will earn $39 million next season, or $3 million more than he would have earned had he opted into his player option.

If Leonard, 30, chooses to return to the Clippers, he has several options he can pick from regarding the length and structure of his deal. The maximum length and value of any contract he can sign to return right now is four years and around $176 million.

A one-year deal with a player option for the second season could allow him next summer to sign up to a five-year extension worth close to $235 million.

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LAKERS

Broderick Turner on the Lakers: For the Lakers, landing Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards via trade was the splashiest move in the NBA so far heading into the free-agency period, which starts Monday.

By sending out Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrel and the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson, the Lakers now have just five players under contract and will have to be creative to field a team around Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Adding the salaries of James, Davis, Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Alfonzo McKinnie together, the Lakers’ payroll stands at about $131 million, leaving them with not much money to spend on free agents.

The Lakers have their own players they would like to re-sign: restricted free agent Talen Horton-Tucker and unrestricted free agent Alex Caruso.

The Lakers will have the taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.9 million to use and the veteran minimum exception.

Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations, has a lot of decisions to make for the roster rebuild. Here’s a look at players that the Lakers probably will look at and some who desire to join the team:

Read the list by clicking here.

————

NBA free agency roundtable: Lakers and Clippers options include big names, small pay

DODGERS

Justin Turner celebrates with Corey Seager and Chris Taylor after scoring runs on a double by Albert Pujols.

Justin Turner celebrates with Corey Seager and Chris Taylor after scoring runs on a double by Albert Pujols.

(Associated Press)

Mike DiGiovanna on the Dodgers: Corey Seager returned from a 10-week stint on the injured list because of a right-hand fracture on Friday. Mookie Betts returned to the lineup for Sunday’s 13-0 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Chase Field after missing two weeks because of right-hip inflammation.

Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, acquired from the Washington Nationals with shortstop Trea Turner on Friday, will make his Dodgers debut against the Houston Astros Wednesday night in Chavez Ravine.

Turner, who is on the COVID-19 injured list, could join the team as early as this weekend, adding much-needed speed, some more power and defensive versatility to the lineup.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has spoken for months about “holding serve” in the National League West while weathering all the injuries and the loss of pitcher Trevor Bauer to a domestic-violence investigation.

The defending World Series-champion Dodgers won’t be at full strength until left-hander Clayton Kershaw returns from an elbow injury, but if they’re going to overtake the first-place San Francisco Giants, who hold a three-game lead over them in the division, they need to make their move soon.

And if their inability to seize control of a division they’ve won for eight straight years didn’t concern the Dodgers over the past two or three months, it should now.

“We have to be like that all year,” said Betts, who singled and scored in the seventh inning Sunday and led off the ninth with a homer. “It’s kind of hard to just turn it on right now. So we have to do a better job of displaying some urgency.

“That’s what we did really well last year. We haven’t done it as well this year. We just have to start playing with some urgency and getting some things to turn our way instead of waiting for it.”

ANGELS

Jack Harris on the Angels: Some major-league debuts are storybook. Some are like nightmares. And others fall somewhere in the middle, where flashes of brilliance and glimpses of promise are overshadowed by novice mistakes and an overall lack of production.

Reid Detmers’ introduction to the majors on Sunday was the latter, as the Angels’ top pitching prospect gave up six runs over 4 1/3 innings in the team’s 8-3 loss against the Oakland Athletics.

The day started well, went terribly in the middle and ended with a fizzle, the 22-year-old left-hander riding the full range of emotions during his first outing on a big-league mound.

“It was definitely a dream come true,” Detmers said. “Obviously it didn’t go as planned, but that’s baseball. You just got to bounce back.”

GOLD CUP

United States players celebrate their extra-time victory over Mexico.

The United States celebrates its victory over Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

(David Becker / AP)

Miles Robinson scored on a header in the 117th minute, and a United States junior varsity lineup upset a mostly front-line Mexico team 1-0 on Sunday night to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Kellyn Acosta, the only player in the U.S. starting lineup who gets playing time when the first-choice roster is together, took a free kick, and Robinson outjumped Edson Álvarez and headed the ball in on one hop to the right of goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera.

Robinson, a 24-year-old defender in his fourth Major League Soccer season with Atlanta, got his third international goal in nine international appearances, his second goal of the tournament.

Matt Turner got his fifth shutout in six matches of the Gold Cup, the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean. The Americans won all three knockout matches by 1-0 scores.

The U.S. won its seventh Gold Cup title, its first since 2017, matching Mexico for the most in the 15 tournaments. Canada won in 2000. It was just the second victory for the Americans in seven finals against El Tri.

The U.S. has won nine consecutive games overall and 14 home games in a row.

GILTINIS

Johnny Ryberg #14 of L.A. Giltinis runs for a try against Rugby Atlanta during the first half.

Johnny Ryberg #14 of L.A. Giltinis runs for a try against Rugby Atlanta during the first half.

(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images for LA Giltinis)

Luca Evans on the Giltinis: The air was heavy with silence. Members of the L.A Giltinis sat in a pregame circle in their locker room, gazing at the floor. This Sunday match was of prime importance — the championship game in their dominant inaugural Major League Rugby season.

Tension diffused like a popped balloon, though, as coach Darren Coleman strolled over from his office in a goofy suit jacket and a bright-pink tie over blue shorts. To chuckles, he told them the story of his introduction to the Giltinis: He was taking his dog for a walk on a golf course in Australia at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown when he got a call from owner Adam Gilchrist.

“I reckon life’s just a series of journeys,” Coleman told his team. “You never know what happens when you go for a walk with your dog.”

Hours later, the Giltinis’ journey of a season came to a triumphant close, with a 31-17 win over Rugby ATL at the Coliseum to clinch the MLR championship.

RAMS

The Rams reported to training camp Tuesday in Irvine and started workouts Wednesday. Click here for our live blog of updates throughout training camp.

CHARGERS

The Chargers reported to training camp Tuesday in Irvine and started workouts Wednesday. Click here for our live blog of updates throughout training camp.

OLYMPICS

Where’s the Olympics coverage? You will be receiving a special Olympics edition of the Sports Report, which should hit your inbox around 7 a.m. PT each day, and will run daily during the Games. You can also check out all of our Olympics coverage by clicking here.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1864 — The first Travers Stakes at Saratoga is won by Kentucky, a horse that scores 20 consecutive victories.

1912 — John McDermott wins the U.S. Open golf championship for the second straight year with a 294 total.

1952 — Five American boxers win gold medals at the Olympics, marking the first time the U.S. wins the unofficial team title. The five medalists are flyweight Nate Brooks; light welterweight Charley Adkins; middleweight Floyd Patterson; light heavyweight Norvell Lee and heavyweight Eddie Sanders.

1967 — The New Orleans Saints play their first preseason game and lose to the Rams, 77-16.

1979 — New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson is killed in a plane crash practicing takeoffs and landings near his Ohio home.

1986 — Jackie Joyner sets the world record in the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston with 7,158 points.

1992 — Vitaly Scherbo of the Unified Team wins gold medals in the vault, rings, pommel horse and parallel bars to give him a total of six gold, the most won by a gymnast in a single Olympic Games.

1996 — Down to her final long jump attempt and fighting an injured hamstring, Jackie Joyner-Kersee leaps out of sixth place and ends her Olympic career with a bronze medal. Joyner Kersee jumps 22 feet, 11 3-4 inches for her sixth Olympic medal.

1998 — Brandie Burton closes with an even-par 72 for a tournament-record 18-under 270 to win the du Maurier Classic by one stroke over Annika Sorenstam. It’s the lowest score in relation to par at a women’s major, breaking Betsy King’s 17-under 267 in the 1992 LPGA Championship.

2005 — In the largest trade in NBA history, Antoine Walker is dealt from Boston to Miami in a transaction involving five teams and 13 players. The Heat acquire point guard Jason Williams and small forward James Posey from Memphis, while the Grizzlies receive guard Eddie Jones from the Heat. The New Orleans Hornets and Utah Jazz also are involved in the deal.

2009 — Catriona Matthew wins the Women’s British Open for her first major title, beating Karrie Webb by three strokes just 10 weeks after giving birth to her second child.

2012 — Carmelo Anthony and the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team rewrite the record books in a 156-73 romp over Nigeria. Anthony scores 37 points, including 10 of 12 3-pointers, to break the U.S. single-game scoring record in less than three quarters. When Andre Iguodala hits a 3-pointer with 4:37 left, the Americans surpass the previous Olympic record of 138 points set by Brazil against Egypt in 1988.

2012 — Gabby Douglas becomes the third straight American to win gymnastics’ biggest prize when she wins the all-around Olympic title.

2012 — Michael Phelps wins his first individual gold medal of the London Games in the 200-meter individual medley. The U.S. star becomes the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three straight Olympics, capturing his 20th career medal — and 16th gold.

2015 — American Pharoah delivers an encore performance in his first race since winning the Triple Crown, by cruising to a 2 1/4-length victory in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

2015 — Inbee Park rallies to win the Women’s British Open to become the seventh woman to win four different major championships.

And finally

Gabby Douglas’ gold medal performance in the 2012 Olympics. Watch it here.

Until next time…

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.



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LA Giltinis Take USMLR Championship Against Rugby ATL 31-17 Sunday – CBS Los Angeles

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