Discussions around LGBT+ in sport often centre around the athletes themselves coming out, speaking out or even being abused by spectators in the crowd, but there is another side to the conversation – the people who tell those stories.
Clare Balding is one name that might spring to mind as one of the most prominent broadcasters in the country, but there are others like Jon Holmes – the home page editor at Sky Sports – and Alex Kay-Jelski – former sports editor at the Daily Mail and The Times and now the editor-in-chief at The Athletic UK – who are also part of the LGBT+ community, to name a few.
The BBC cannot be left out of the mix either, with BBC Cornwall presenter Jack Murley hosting weekly episodes of the BBC LGBT Sport podcast.
Coming from a sporting family, Murley was a keen hockey and badminton player through his youth into his university days, but began working with the national broadcaster when he graduated.
“I got very lucky,” Murley recalled.
“I got into broadcasting by what was called the Blast scheme, that was work experience with the BBC. I had been doing a little bit of volunteering in community radio in Cornwall, where I’m from, and I loved it.
“I came to Radio Cornwall and the sports producer, a guy called Ross Ellis, took me under his wing. I did six weeks and he said I wasn’t terrible at it, how would I fancy some freelance work, and it built up from there.
“I was doing commentaries and updates from the side of rainy pitches in Cornwall, and it just built up. I was incredibly fortunate to get a contract, and suddenly I was in through the door at Radio Cornwall.”
From there, Murley shifted on to the news desk at BBC Somerset before returning to sport, first in the Channel Islands and then back in Cornwall, and it was in Jersey that the 31-year-old debuted a segment on his show called The Other Side, which would focus on putting a spotlight on LGBT+ athletes.
It was a topic that had always been close to his heart, having known from an early age that he was gay.
Murley did not bring his sexual preferences up all that often while he was playing sport. He was not struggling internally with the fact, but instead chose to stay cautious, not knowing how others would react to the news.
It was only at university that his sexuality became general knowledge amongst his teammates, and the broadcaster believes it took that long because of a lack of role models he could look up to – which would prove to be a big factor in why he wanted to start up a podcast dedicated to LGBT+ in sport.
“I think it was because I didn’t see anyone else in sport who was gay,” Murley explained.
“I know it’s something we talk about on the podcast with elite athletes, but I think it’s true at grassroots level. I’m looking and I’m seeing all these people and none of them are like me in that sense, none of them are living the same experience that I had.
“When you were looking at the news and sports media, all the representation there was of what it’s like to be telling people you were gay was negative.
“It was a bad thing, and I really enjoyed playing sport, that was what my Saturdays were about. It was something that was part of my social life, something I enjoyed, so I didn’t want to take the risk of losing all of that over something if I didn’t feel like I had to.
“I never pretended to be straight, I never had girlfriends or anything, that side of things just never came up. That to me was the best way to stay playing sport and stay comfortable in it.
“The reason I started the podcast was that I felt like I wasn’t hearing stories from people like me in sport, and there are two reasons as a journalist you don’t hear something – it doesn’t exist, or nobody can be bothered to go out and tell those stories.
“There were people like Jon Holmes at Sky, OutSports, groups that were telling those stories, I just thought the BBC should be doing it as well. I knew of a couple of people and a couple of stories, and I thought let’s tell them. They’re interesting stories from a part of the audience that doesn’t necessarily get their story told that often.
“I wanted to start it for that reason, I thought they were interesting stories which was important, and I just knew how someone like me growing up could have done with that.”
It was encouraging that, from the off, Murley received only support and no hesitance to push forward with the BBC LGBT Sport podcast.
If he needed a studio to record in, the company were always accommodating. Shows other than Murley’s own started promoting the content on air and online. As with any new project, there were nerves over how it was going to be received, but those were quickly quashed as the backing proved to be more than mere lip service.
Becoming more proactive in engaging with LGBT+ stories could easily have carved out a niche for Murley, but perhaps surprisingly his identity is not something that gets shouted from the rooftops in his everyday work, and he would not have it any other way.
“To be honest, it has very rarely been something that comes up,” he said.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned from doing the podcast is that actually, there are more folk than you think that identify as LGBT+ doing sports journalism.
“There have been very few occasions which I’ve experienced anything other than positivity and love and frankly a sort of indifference – like people don’t care.
“If I’m commentating on Truro City in an FA Cup game, or the Jersey Reds, or the Rowing Championships, people don’t care who you’re attracted to – they care whether you’re getting the name of a goalscorer right and whether you’ve done your homework. I’ve probably been quite fortunate in that regard in that it hasn’t really caused issues.
“It’s important that you are open about yourself. It’s important that people do know about you, and about all of yourself – particularly in our job where you’re asking people quite ballsy questions. If someone loses a game and you’re asking them if they’re job is on the line – if you’re expecting that level of openness from them you have to be open back.
“I think once people know and they’re past that initial ‘oh, I didn’t know that’, I’m not sure why anyone would feel the need to bring it up. I like it, I like the fact that there’s no secrets from the people I speak with and interview, and it’s not something they feel is noteworthy.”
Murley has seen his podcast grow from nothing over the last year or so, boosted by names like Nigel Owens, Keegan Hirst and Jill Ellis agreeing to come on as guests, to the stage that some episodes are now being promoted on the BBC home page online and prominent social media accounts like Match of the Day are sharing the content.
That has given him something that any news outlet needs: credibility.
He has earned the trust of those athletes who appear to tell their stories, and while Murley was non-committal over the long-term future of the show, his enthusiasm has shown no signs of slowing down just yet.
“I sort of note it by the landmark episodes, so we’re coming up on our 70th show in the last couple of weeks,” he enthused.
“We’re now at the stage that people know who we are when we approach them, and we’ve built up that body of trust. If you’re a LGBT+ athlete, you can look up our back catalogue, see the way we speak to people and treat them and hear the way we tell their stories.
“They know it’s not going to be ‘gotcha’ journalism, they know it’s not going to be sensational quotes.
“Word of mouth helps, and having some ‘bigger’ names agreeing to do it makes it so much easier. If I can turn around to people and say we’ve had Jess Fishlock, we’ve had Claire Balding, we’ve had Kellie Maloney, and they’ve all agreed to appear, it means that we’ve got that momentum.
“I find that’s the biggest thing that’s different now to when we started it. At first, it was asking people to take a leap of faith to trust us to tell their story, and because some big names fairly early on had that faith in us, we’re now in the position where people do want to talk with us.
“I’m looking down the pike and I’m seeing we’ll have the 100th episode in the not too distant future. That’s a big deal to me personally, it’s something I’ll be really proud of. Whether there will be 101 I don’t know, because it’s a lot of work each week on top of my day job.
“But episode 100 is where we’re looking, and I’d like to continue building the listeners and continue getting great guests because let’s be honest, for me it’s a bit of a treat. I get to speak to amazing sportspeople, and that isn’t anything I’m going to wish away in a hurry. To get to 100 and see where we are is what we’re looking at.”