Just days after publicly posing as gay, rugby star Ian Roberts was admiring the Sydney Harbor Bridge between the wharves at Circular Quay when the king was hit by two thugs.
She told Roberts that the couple then dragged, kicked, and molested him unconscious.
Then there was a game between Roberts’ Manly and St. George at the Jubilee Oval, Kogarah, when a fan slapped Roberts in the face – calling him a « fagot » – when Sea Eagles players left the field at halftime.
Roberts responded by dragging the perpetrator to the ground before spectators and security personnel entered. The man was later charged with assault.
And Roberts can’t forget an interstate trip with one of his NRL clubs, too, when his chosen roommate, a well-known player Roberts wants to keep anonymous, said, « I feel uncomfortable with Ian because he’s a fagot is. »
Ian Roberts, now 55, has raised the determination to share his brave story about being the first NRL player to publicly admit to being gay. He tells of the personal agony and homophobia that followed and engulfed his controversial but historic 1995 recording. He also suffered a nervous breakdown.
« If someone viciously calls you a ‘fucking fagot’ it cuts to the bone because that’s supposed to dehumanize you. It would piss me off if people were abusive on the street, » said Roberts, now happily in a relationship Partner Daniel, a school teacher, for 15 years.
« We still have a lot to do as a community to combat discrimination, misogyny, homophobia and racism. You have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand. »
In 1995, Roberts shocked the rugby league by becoming the first player to appear publicly gay. It was a landmark moment for the game.
“It was the worst kept secret in the Ruby League. Even when I was in Souths, everyone knew I was gay. I’ve spoken to a lot of reporters since then and they all said they wanted to ask me that question, but didn’t out of respect for me. I thought that was really respectful, « said Roberts.
« When I left Souths for Manly in 1990 I wanted to make a public statement. Right before I went to Justin Fashanu in the UK he was an English footballer who played in the Premier League came out and the English press treated him viciously, it was dreadful.
« He was dropped and took his own life in 1998. It was such an ugly story. I felt like my family didn’t need it, my parents didn’t need it. That was what I was worried about, I never was . » I was really worried about my situation because I always felt comfortable being gay.
« I’ve been traveling privately since I was 19 or 20. I’ve always felt good growing up gay.
« In 1994 I went on the Kangaroo tour (to England) as a gay man. Terry Hill was my roommate, he was a good friend and he knew I was gay for a long time. So on this tour it kind of came out, everyone on this one Tour knew I was gay.
« At the time there was a new gay magazine and I was doing other magazine interviews. I remember thinking, ‘I wish I got out earlier than I was with Souths.’ I always felt like my family to protect, but you can’t protect people from being who you are.
« My parents weren’t happy that I was coming out publicly, but they knew I had always intended to come out. They had known for a long time, but it was difficult. I was sled in the field, but I never would have thought that someone hated me because I was gay. I was called a ‘fagot’. It was fine.
« I always felt for my mom and dad at games because people screamed … I was afraid they had to hear that, but there are certain things you can’t protect your family from. I have myself never ashamed to say I was same sex attracted but if I got out in the late 1980s they would have had to endure it more. »
« It would be naive to think there aren’t any – I won’t name the coach, but a few years ago he said he didn’t think gay men would play rugby. He meant business, » said Roberts.
« It was really negative to say it and it was wrong. I know that factually. There are definitely same sex men who play rugby in the NRL. Every trip is their own. My only advice is to make sure you are safe feel.
« But there are gay men who play rugby here in Australia. You just have to watch the women’s game. They are more embracing and less judgmental of same-sex attraction. Some people don’t think they’ve ever met gay people. » « »
Before leaving Townsville in 1998 after representing North Queensland, Roberts heard voices. He was afraid.
« I haven’t slept for almost three weeks, I heard voices and my mind raced, it basically wouldn’t shut itself off. I thought I was going crazy and would be like this forever, » recalled Roberts.
« I was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. I had a mental episode, anxiety, depression. My partner at the time, Andrew, told me I had to do something, something was wrong. But I didn’t want to admit it myself. »
« I remembered that conflict inside of me and thought, ‘I can take care of it, I’ll be fine, I’m just having a bad day’.
« Andrew came home one day when I was in the corner and had this episode. There were other things going on in my head that weren’t real. Some crazy things were happening. The voices … I had this argument with someone and that I was fine but not fine, I’m not ashamed, ashamed, or uncomfortable talking about it.
« It was a fight like having a different personality on your mind. It’s hard to explain. I went to the cowboys doctor and it was a strange sensation. He told me I had an episode of fear, but I would be. » Okay, that was a wonderful moment. It was like he had a hammer and he hit my head and from that moment on it kind of went.
« Of course I had ongoing problems, but that moment when the doctor said I would be fine was a central relief, a life-changing moment.
« I’m now at a point where I’ve done it. My family has a history of mental health. I’ve been turning my mental health medication on and off for 30 years. »
Roberts had a remarkable 13 year football career, representing Souths, Manly, North Queensland, City, NSW, Australia and Wigan in England. When he was only 21, Jack Gibson described Roberts as « the best front rower in the game ».
« There were certain times when I had the highest confidence on the field. It was like, ‘This is what I did and what I’m supposed to do,' » he said.
« There was also the theater of sport. It was this whole gladiator thing; playing in front of the crowd, delighting the crowd, and delighting yourself. There was a level of creativity there that people in sport may not see.
« That confidence becomes a drug. Anyone who played at an elite level of sport would understand – it’s addicting. I found it really difficult to let go of that when I called it a day.
« I was lucky enough to have a skill in something, I could make a living from it, and I understood that I was good at this game with above-average skills – not that I wanted to pretend I was better. » than the next person.
« I enjoyed my football most at Manly because my private life was no longer really private at that point. Everyone at the club knew I was gay and felt good. »
« I’m grateful for YouTube because I lost most of my own memorabilia in a fire 20 years ago, » he said. « These are news snippets, videos, games and rings. I’ve never really recovered. I can only revisit games if I see them on YouTube or if someone sends me a clip. »
Former Balmain full-back Garry Jack took Roberts to court in 1991 for a nasty field brawl that included Roberts.
Jack tried to sue Roberts for $ 100,000 in damages. He claimed he suffered traumatic injuries to the face, as well as shock, headaches and numbness. The matter was settled out of court and Roberts was asked to pay $ 50,000.
« I apologized to Garry in court and personally apologized to Garry, » said Roberts. « Garry and I are in contact now, we’re talking to each other. I also apologized to his family.
« I regret this whole situation. I look back and people ask me about it. I was a young guy who played out. It was a moment I really regret. I absolutely do. It was inappropriate. I don’t even know how it happened, but I remember frustration was part of it.
« It was such an ugly look for the game. He didn’t deserve it, his family didn’t deserve it. I felt like I really let my family and myself down. It was a really ugly situation from I wish it had never happened. »
Roberts signed with the Super League in 1995 despite playing for Manly, an ARL club. When Roberts learned that he had been banned from playing representative football for joining the Rebel League, he and Gorden Tallis took the extraordinary step of suspending the entire 1996 season in protest before returning to North Queensland.
« I firmly believe I made the right call to join the Super League, but I wish I hadn’t been so moronic. After 1995, the ARL said they would not allow any Super League players to To represent NSW or to play in the world. » Cup.
« So I sat out the ’96 season in protest. Manly went on and won the grand final so they obviously didn’t miss me. That was my only chance to win a grand final. Looking back, because I never won a big one . » After all, it might have been stubbornness or a sense of fairness.
« The Super League was good for the game and wonderful players. The Super League was the whole start of Foxtel. The game has developed rapidly since then. »
Roberts struggled after his career when the awards and spotlight disappeared. Then he returned to another passion, acting.
After graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Roberts made a cameo in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and then in Little Fish with Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. He also appeared in Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.
« Football has left a huge void – the first few years after he retired were really empty and hollow, » he said. « What do I do now? There was also a feeling of worthlessness … I was only good for one thing. I judged myself.
« But I’ve been lucky enough to fall into something I’m passionate about. I was always part of an ensemble when I was in school, so it wasn’t like acting was never in my universe. It always was Part of my life. »
« I started acting again because my car literally broke 200 yards up the street from NIDA in Kensington. I went to a gas station to get someone to tow the car when I showed up at NIDA and thought someone might be there who could help me get back into one-on-one training.
« The pursuit of relearning the trade filled that football void. I take work whenever I can get it, but to be honest, if I had to survive my acting tests week after week I would go hungry. »
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