For someone who has made a living out of the spoken word, language plays an important role in Nick Heath’s life.
A rugby commentator since 2011, Heath has worked for virtually every network, telling the story of matches across the globe to TV and online audiences.
Calling out names from behind a microphone comes as naturally to Heath as talking about LGBTQ+ issues, because it is 23 years ago since the former RGS Wycombe first-teamer came out as gay.
Heath, who is half Irish, comes from a rugby-playing family and says that in all his time in the sport his sexuality has never been an issue.
Ridding the sport of outdated language is, however, still a work in progress.
Marler, Care and Robshaw proud to be LGBT+ allies— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) June 22, 2020
To mark Pride Month, commentator @nickheathsport speaks to three of Harlequins' England stars about why inclusion is so important in rugby.
“Once I had come out to my mates and finding that being gay wasn’t an issue there, I didn’t think there would be any further issues, and I have been fortunate enough not to discover any issues in rugby since,” he said.
“I don’t think the game is rife with homophobes, but ingrained behaviours still exist in some people who use language that has become outdated and lazy.
“I was speaking to Matt Webb, who is chairman of the Kings Cross Steelers (the world’s first gay and inclusive rugby club) and we’re looking at working together to see what more we can do to help educate people in grassroots rugby on the communication side of things.
“He told me about a time he called someone out in a game who said to him, ‘Just shut up, you big fairy!”
“Okay, it’s not the most offensive term in the world, but ultimately if you’re saying that in an LGBT context, it is.
“They might not understand the power of the language they are using, and language can kill people, particularly on the LGBT side, where you can have higher incidences of mental health issues because people could be doubting themselves or their own sexuality, or whether they fit in, or whether they will be accepted.
“The more these little bits of language are used, that end up being pejorative, it may reinforce the message that the way they live their lives, or who they are, is in some ways lesser to other people. I think that’s where the issue is.
“I guess, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matters Movement, sometimes it is not enough to just sit there and says it doesn’t bother me so it’s fine, sometimes it is better to be more proactive and see what we can do to help things improve, and language is one area where we can improve.
“It can be hard to change ingrained behaviours in rugby, but if we can start a conversation with more people who are a little bit younger, then, hopefully, you can get them to understand that these things aren’t appropriate.”
While Welsh RWC 2015 final referee Nigel Owens and former Wales captain Gareth Thomas have been high-profile LGBTQ+ campaigners, Heath is also playing his part in raising awareness.
The 41-year-old represents the LGBTQ+ community as a Harlequins Foundation ambassador and has also been invited to take part in the RFU’s Role Model programme.
“I feel comfortable with who I am and what I do because I don’t feel like it is an issue. If there is anyone out there wondering whether that could be their life, I am happy to be visible and show them there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
A sprightly winger until a crocked knee checked his progress, Heath applauds the fact that rugby is a game for all regardless of their sexual orientation, size, religion or race.
“I think the way Nigel Owens and Gareth Thomas have been lauded and celebrated by the rugby community says a lot about rugby as a sport.
“I think that’s probably because in rugby we have the element that you can be 5’7 and stick thin and nip down the wing and score the most amazing try, or you can be 18 stone and not overly keen on pre-season fitness, but still burrow over from two metres out when that’s needed.
“Rugby is used to people being any number of things on and off the field. I think it’s more important to people that you are mucking in or getting your round in rather than what you get up to in your private life.”
A real-life distraction
Heath is looking forward to picking up the microphone again soon and has his heart set on getting a gig at next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
This year has, so far, been a case of feast and famine on the commentary front, with a hectic schedule in the first few months following by a blank diary thereafter.
“There was a 10-week period from December to February where, across the Varsity game, the Women’s Six Nations, the Premiership and the Champions Cup, my commentary was on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky,” he said.
“It is the perfect example of the modern landscape because the days of having one role and a 30-40-year career for one broadcaster are long gone.”
Heath’s innate desire to describe what was happening around him – in his childhood he’d pretend to be Simon Geoghegan catching high balls after seeing him play at Lansdowne Road – kept him busier than most during lockdown though.
The RFU’s voice of England women’s rugby was never far away from our screens with his real-life commentaries capturing the imagination of the public on YouTube and Twitter and news editors around the world.
As a classically trained actor, Heath is not shy in coming forward.
But even he admits that the reaction to his videos of pram-pushing Swedish au pairs and pecking pigeons, turned into sporting events through his linguistic skills, took him by surprise.
“It was amazing, the reaction to it was extraordinary, it seemed to capture the imagination. I think a lot of people were looking for a bit of escapism at the time.”
So, what next?
“With Rugby World Cup 2021 on the horizon next year, it would be a perfect way to commemorate 10 years since my first tour as a journalist by commentating on the women’s tournament.
“Having been one of the leading voices on the women’s game throughout my career, to be calling games in New Zealand where rugby is religion would be a first for me and an opportunity I’d relish.”