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Ben Cohen makes a move of the rugby field to combat bullying and homophobia

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  • Ben Cohen makes a move of the rugby field to combat bullying and homophobia

    A Star Athlete Makes a Big Move Off the Field

    Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
    Ben Cohen, the rugby player turned advocate.


    WHEN the noted British athlete Ben Cohen — the David Beckham of rugby — walked down the runway this month for an AmFAR benefit at the New York Public Library, odds were that many in this audience thought he was just another handsome, muscular model. With his easy smile, buzz cut and 6-foot-3 frame, Mr. Cohen fit the mold and the clothes.

    But attention soon turned from his physique to his back story. One of the highest-scoring players in British Union rugby history, Mr. Cohen, 33, was being honored that night. Taking the microphone, Mr. Cohen explained to the crowd that instead of signing a three-year contract, he quit rugby last year to devote himself full-time to battling homophobia.

    In 2011, he started the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation to combat bullying, especially the bullying of children who might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — an issue that has received heightened attention in the last two years after the suicides of several gay teenagers who had been bullied by peers.

    It was a remarkable move. A straight sports star (he and his wife, Abby, have twin 4-year-old daughters) giving up his sports career to educate the world about gay issues?
    And Mr. Cohen’s next move will probably have more people Googling (and goggling) him. Next month, he and his foundation will begin selling a line of athletic-style cotton underwear. Ads will feature him in the briefs, looking freshly muddied from the rugby pitch.

    The underwear line might not have the broad appeal of, say, Lance Armstrong’s yellow LiveStrong bracelets, but Mr. Cohen certainly has his fans.

    “I got paid to wear underwear in the first place,” Mr. Cohen said, referring to an ad campaign 10 years ago for Sloggi, a European underwear brand. It was those images, ricocheting around the Internet, that introduced him to many gay men. Other photos of him shirtless followed, and his gay fan base grew.

    He was completely unaware of his new admirers until a few years later when a friend pointed out that his Facebook fan page had some 37,000 followers — a number that last week passed the 200,000 mark.
    “I was flattered,” he said last week in New York, where he visited briefly. He was heading back to England, after attending a summit about antigay bias in sports at the Nike headquarters in Portland, Ore. “Any attention is nice. It’s good for your ego.”

    Not all male athletes have been flattered by gay male fans, particularly those in professional team sports. Though a handful of pros have publicly come out as gay after retiring, no player has done the same while still active in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League or National Basketball Association.

    “For so long, masculine culture in this country was so afraid of homosexuality that anything that could be remotely tied to it was to be avoided at all costs,” said Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of, a Web site devoted to news about gay athletes, as well as photos of shirtless athletes.

    But the tide seems to be turning. Mr. Zeigler pointed to several straight sports figures who have recently voiced support for gay marriage, including Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Houston Texans; Matt Cain, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants; and Mat Latos, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

    And in an interview posted on, Mr. Barwin told Mr. Zeigler that he had no problems having gay admirers. “I don’t mind at all if guys think I’m hot,” Mr. Barwin said. “It’s a compliment.”

    That is partly what makes Mr. Cohen’s efforts remarkable: he neatly brings the two strains — one about accepting gays, the other about accepting gaze — together. Earnest and modest, he talks passionately about how he came to empathize with bullying victims after speaking with gay fans. His father died in 2000 trying to break up a nightclub fight, and Mr. Cohen said he has inherited his father’s penchant for sticking up for the underdog.

    “I might play the most violent sport in the world, but I still know right from wrong,” he said. “The important thing is to educate people about what bullying does. It’s about understanding.”

    And the underwear doesn’t hurt.

    A Star Athlete Makes a Big Move Off the Field