Things do change.

Consider the case of Gareth Thomas, an international rugby star. The Welshman is 6’3” and a muscular 225 pounds. He’s busted his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and a hip and an arm, lost eight teeth and been concussed an average of three times a year.

Rugby is such a wussy sport.

You wouldn’t think Thomas would be afraid of anything. But he was, in a bone-deep way. He feared that people would find out he was gay.

In the May 3 issue of Sports Illustrated, writer Gary Smith delved into Thomas’ psyche, his years of striving to be fitter, louder and drunker than his teammates, his brothers. The man, named to the Welsh national rugby team more often than anyone else, fought to keep his secret from his rugged teammates and his rugged country.

You can guess how well that worked out.

In 2006, at a physical and emotional low, Thomas began telling people closest to him the truth, starting with his wife — generally a good choice.

He resisted going public until December of 2009, when, wrote Smith, “a now-or-never feeling gripped his chest. He was 35, his international career finished and he trusted his Cardiff Blues teammates and coaches.” Thomas knew coming out as an active player rather than in retirement would have a far greater impact.

Hours after he came out in print, he found himself in a game sporting the jersey the team occasionally wears for away matches — the pink one.

At least the ball wasn’t rainbow-striped.

The man Sports Illustrated called “the world’s bravest athlete” for being the only out active player on a major men’s team sport has become a changed fella, a visible gay force.

In the months since coming out, he’s talked about homophobia on TV and at universities and become a patron of LGBT History Month. Thomas wants to help kids. “I want to be the gay role model I never had. The note I got from a guy who gave up rugby years ago because he was gay and has returned to playing it since I came out — that outweighs lifting the biggest trophy as captain of Wales.”

Such notes won’t break any part of his anatomy, either. Except perhaps his heart.

It’s not just one man who has changed. The reaction from teammates, fans and the media has been largely positive. Paul Burston, a gay editor who hails from Thomas’ Welsh hometown, said, “Something really deep is changing. There’s still a lot of homophobia, but it’s not something you let out in genteel company now. It’s been stigmatized.”

How great is that? The stigma is now on the other rugby boot.

Thomas, who was planning to retire, felt so invigorated that he signed on with a team in northern Wales to play two years of an even faster and more physical brand of rugby. Either he’s feeling suddenly, wonderfully free, or the man has had one too many concussions.

On March 26, in his second game for the Crusaders, his squad played the Castleford Tigers in Yorkshire, England. Tigers fans subjected Thomas to homophobic taunting. Some of those Yorkshire lads would rather hurl themselves into the scrum than go along with this change thing.

But, they may have to. On June 29, the Rugby Football League (RFL) slapped the Castleford club with a fine of about $60,000. The RFL said, “Castleford were found guilty of unacceptable behaviour, of breaching the RFL’s respect policy, of misconduct by their supporters and of conduct prejudicial to the interests of the sport.”

Here’s my very un-British reaction: Yeehaw! First Thomas came out, now the league has his back. Finally everybody’s on the same team. : :

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