Trail-blazing rugby league club will wear new kit when they kick off 2021 season in March; Cougars co-owner Ryan O’Neill exclusively explains all to Sports Media LGBT+…
Keighley Cougars are poised to make another moment of LGBT+ history in sport after announcing their 2021 season kit will feature the Progress Pride flag.
The Cougars held a pioneering Pride Game in July 2019 – the first of its kind in rugby league – and their addition of the redesigned Pride flag incorporating a chevron of black, brown, white, pink, and light blue stripes on shirt sleeves will again lead the way.
Having seen their 2020 campaign in the RFL League One – the sport’s third professional tier in England and Wales – declared null and void due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the west Yorkshire side are finally set to take the field again when they travel to face Bradford Bulls in a friendly on March 13, before the competitive action begins with a Challenge Cup tie against London Broncos the following weekend.
The Progress Pride flag was created in 2018 by graphic designer Daniel Quasar, combining both the colours of the ‘Philadelphia’ Pride flag and the trans flag into a new spin on the Gilbert Baker original. Over the last 12 months, it has become the version of choice for many LGBTQ+ events and endeavours because of the inclusive message it conveys.
Leading on the initiative at Keighley is Ryan O’Neill, who became a co-owner of the club two years ago when his father returned to Cougar Park as chairman. Also joining the board of directors was Ryan’s husband Kaue – it’s thought they are the first same-sex married couple to own a professional sports club.
As part of the ownership group, Ryan and Kaue have been warmly welcomed by supporters and the local community, and the Pride Game – when amid a carnival atmosphere, the Cougars beat West Wales Raiders 50-18 while wearing a special rainbow kit, with Keegan Hirst among the matchday guests – was a huge success.
Sports Media LGBT+ caught up with Ryan to learn more about the Cougars’ 2021 shirts and why the club is wearing its Pride on its sleeves…
JH: Hi Ryan! It’s awesome to see that the Cougars will have the Pride progress flag on their shirts this season. Why is this visibility important to both yourself and the club?
RO’N: As a professional sports club, we’re able to use the visibility and platform to promote the messaging of equality for all. At Keighley Cougars, we have a large number of LGBTQ+ identifying supporters and staff – this means we have a strong shared belief and experience of being part of a minority community.
The messaging from a male-dominated northern-centric sport is even more important, as it can change minds and attitudes. I’ve already seen this in the two years I’ve been involved with the Cougars.
We’ve seen some recent additions of the flag to sports kit in AFLW (Western Bulldogs in the recent Pride round) and surfing (Tyler Wright) – but this certainly appears to be a world first in professional men’s team sports. Since you’ve been involved in rugby league, how have you found the culture and the conversations around LGBTQ+ inclusion?
I’ve had several conversations with supporters about LGBTQ+ issues, and have been told on a number of occasions that our involvement in the club has changed their perception and opinion for the better. It’s quite common in Keighley and in rugby league generally, for supporters to have never knowingly met LGBTQ+ people, and so their opinions and attitudes may not have been fully formed.
Having had the Pride game, and now the flag on the kit, this challenges fans to consider LGBTQ+ issues and with our messaging of equality for all, we hope this results in positive and inclusive attitudes.
With the Cougars having had nearly a year off from playing due to the pandemic, what community / mental health etc initiatives have the club been involved with, to keep people engaged?
We’ve had a very active social media throughout the pandemic, running weekly virtual quizzes.
We were one of the first companies to bring PPE into the country, when there was a national lack of it – we distributed 10,000 of these medical-grade facemasks to front line workers soon after the March 2020 lockdown (we distributed them in April).
We launched a charity playing shirt with profits to the NHS, which raised in excess of £7,000. We also became the official partners of ‘It’s Worth Talking About’ which is a peer support group to assist with wellbeing and mental health.
Will the flag be on the replica shirts that fans can buy, and when will these be available?
Yes, the flag is on all replica shirts. These are available to buy from March 1.
On Thursday, Super League referee James Child has shared his story of being a gay man in the sport – he says he hopes doing so will help others be authentic too. There’s always a lot of focus on players, but what benefits do you see in LGBTQ+ people in other roles in men’s team sports – such as yourself and James – being out?
I think it shows that sport can be welcoming for all people in the LGBTQ+ community. You don’t just have to be a player to be involved in sport.
As a kid, I hated playing rugby – however, I’ve always held a passion for it from a spectator and administrative viewpoint. There’s a view that sports, especially contact sports such as rugby, is not something members of the LGBTQ+ community would want to be involved in, but as is shown by James Child, Nigel Owens, et al – and myself as a club owner – it’s possible to be involved in sport in a number of different ways.
Involvement in sport is a proven help for mental wellbeing and social diversity, and I encourage LGBTQ+ people to consider involvement in any capacity.
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