FEATURE Rugby World Cup Champion Ben Cohen
Image Credit: Gil Melott

The Real Ben Cohen Stands Up - REDUX

by Gil Melott
So here I sit with one of the premiere athletes in the world, Ben Cohen. Ben is an England Rugby World Cup Winner, the second all-time scorer for England, an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and at 6’3” has become not only known as Big Ben on the rough and tumble pitch – but also Big Ben the stand up guy and advocate for raising awareness of the long-term, damaging effects of bullying.

  

Photos by Bret Grafton

Ben Cohen has charisma, solidly rugged good looks and an unmistakable earnestness in his passion about his sport, his StandUp Foundation, his fans and his family. We are propped up at the foot of Cricket Hill along Lakeshore Trail in Chicago. Ben has just finished running a clinic (let’s say relentlessly running) for the Chicago Dragons Rugby Football Club - Chicago’s only predominantly gay rugby team.

It’s just one of the many stops for Ben on his tour across the US with the Ben Cohen Standup Foundation. The big draw event of the week was Ben’s participation at the opening ceremonies of the 35th Annual Gay Softball World Series that brought some 4000 people from across the country to Chicago.

It’s with a level of timid embarrassment that I insert the obligatory, ‘Ben, who is straight and married to his High School sweetheart of 17 years and raising two beautiful twin daughters,’ has set out to end bullying and violence wherever it happens. In particular in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities where they are often the targets. It is his goal and the goal of the foundation to remove homophobia from sports and it sits central to his mission. The reason I noted Ben’s 'orientation' is primarily because he is the first straight, high-profile athlete and the StandUp Foundation is the first such organization to do just that – stand up.

When Ben speaks you are drawn in on many fronts (the accent is one of them.) Here is some of what he had to share in our conversation. There are many layers to Cohen and his story and we will bring you more in the near future.

  

Photos by Bret Grafton

Gilbert Melott/JACKarcher: You have been asked this question many times. But when you faced the tragedy of your father’s murder in 2000, did you have any clue at the time how profoundly it would change your life or that it would propel you to do something so hugely different? (Cohen’s father, Peter Cohen, 58, a former nightclub owner, was attacked in October 2000 at a club owned by his older son when trying to break up a lopsided fight. He died in hospital a month later.)
Ben Cohen: Well they say that many things happen in your life, that mold your life, your mind… set you off in a different direction in some way, shape or form.

First and foremost, apart from the devastation it caused to the family – the scrutiny, publicity, the court cases that dragged on - I didn’t know how it would impact me. Ultimately I just wanted to be a successful sportsman. I had been playing for my country, but my Dad’s death helped me cement myself into the team and go on to focus and win a World Cup. It made me hungry and focused and played a massive role in my life.

GM/JA: Well obviously your focus worked for you with your World Cup win, your England point standing, and it looks like you took it out on the pitch.
BC: Well it helped being able to get rid of my aggression on the pitch, but it was also amazing to have tremendous support of my loving wife Abby, and my mum and family. And quite frankly, I had to be strong for them [family]. I felt a sense of duty.

  

Photos by Bret Grafton

GM/JA: Obviously along the way, something compelled you to do something more or different. When you started the StandUp Foundation how did you articulate what your mission was going to be, what it is today?
BC: Simply - for me I realized I was in a privileged position to do something. And I found out I had a big gay fan base. It wasn’t something I went out specifically to pursue. They came to me, found me attractive (laughs), I find it hard to believe, more of a joke in a bar [his looks] because I’m not a vain person, at least I don’t see myself as such. I hope I’m grounded. But I realized, we realized [team Cohen] that we could be a voice.

I mean God... A voice for people who get bullied because they are perceived to be different you know what I mean? And it’s not just in the gay community, but the foundation is here to address bullying wherever it occurs. But we are focused on the LGBT community.

GM/JA: Any reasons?
BC: Well you know being a successful sportsman and being married and being straight, is a very powerful thing when trying to convey a message to a broad audience. Even within the gay community. The more we looked into the issues, the more we just felt how out of control and ridiculous it all seemed. Especially over here [United States], it seems more radical and less accepting than it is in England. That’s how it evolved really.

We knew if we really wanted to do something within our sport, eradicate homophobia in sport, homophobia/bullying in general really, we would have to set up a foundation. So we set up the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation and a brand beside it. We knew this could give it a firm footing and longevity and ultimately be an extremely powerful thing.

GM/JA: And it’s unique.
BC: Spot on. Exactly. It was unique and one-off and there was no one else doing it. And we are taking the lead and we are proud of that. We just want others to follow along or join us. The response has been overwhelming. And now, four months after retiring and focusing on the foundation, we are probably two years ahead of where we thought we would be.

Photo by Bret Grafton

GM/JA: When you started the foundation, did you think you would get any backlash from fellow athletes?
BC: I’ve never had any backlash or problems from anyone. Anyone.

GM/JA: When you retired, you were still at your peak at 32. Leaving the day to day of the sport to dedicate yourself to StandUp, did you hesitate at all?
BC: I think I had achieved everything I had wanted to in rugby. And maybe some of the passion had gone out of the sport for me. I’m a very emotional person.

I get emotionally attached. And you do that with rugby and they had become a family. I had been doing it for such a long time and been successful, however, I needed new challenges in my life.

And I have become very emotionally attached to what we are doing at the foundation and trying to eliminate bullying and violence.

Photo by Bret Grafton

GM/JA: How will you know when the foundation is being successful or has been successful?
BC: I suppose success will be about making differences in peoples lives. In the most significant way it would be to stop one more person from killing him or herself because they have been tormented. To help demonstrate that life is worth living and there is going to be someone out there, or there is an ‘adopted family of choice’ out there.

For me it’s not about getting thank yous, about big praise. My thank you comes from when someone removes his or her self from that darkness and moves on. I am not necessarily going to know that. But we will hear less about tragedy. That’s the thanks we want, and the measures of success I suppose. It’s unconditional for me. It’s something I want to do.

I look at foundations like the Livestrong brand and want to mirror its successes and focus.

Photo by Bret Grafton

GM/JA: The lovely team leader Ms. Jill keeps looking at me to wrap up, but I am told we will get to follow up soon. So I just want to get out these last couple of things. Your daughters who are now four – what are you going to tell them about what you do or the constituency you serve?

BC: What am I going to tell my daughters? The way I was brought up was about living life how you want to be, really. You still have to have guidelines. The girls are going to have guidelines (insert swarthy, cheeky grin) and boundaries. They are going to push them, but I want them to as long as they are polite girls and they are HAPPY in life. The main thing is that they are HAPPY. They are now, and I want them to remain that way.

If one or both turned to me and told me they were lesbian, I haven’t a problem with that. As LONG as they are HAPPY. I don’t live in a world where things go by formula. I live in a world where we act on honor and respect and family. Always.

  • Gil Melott is Publisher of JACKarcher and head of JACKarcher | JA+. Gil digs all things that haven't happened yet but probably should in music, fashion, art, film, design - you get the picture. Likes the influencers of all things NEXT and the strategies to get them there. Can appreciate great fried chicken, an amazing Malbec, a 1971 Ford Bronco, finding hot bands, and riding a bike any time. He spends a lot of time with his American Bulldog Chap who is the biggest influencer of what happens NEXT.