KICK­ING IT OUT

XAV JUDD ASKS WHY ARE THERE STILL NO OPENLY GAY FOOT­BALLERS IN THE PRE­MIER LEAGUE

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Why there are no out play­ers in the Pre­mier League

Ear­lier this year, the foot­ball-themed movie The Pass hit the cin­e­mas. It fol­lows the lives over a ten-year pe­riod of two play­ers (Ja­son and Ade, played by Rus­sell Tovey and Arinzé Keyne), who are ini­tially both at a Pre­mier League club academy. Dur­ing this time, the pair mull over ev­ery­thing from friend­ship, to fame, to fail­ure. They also ex­plore their sex­u­al­ity, and at one point in the nar­ra­tive, share a pas­sion­ate kiss.

Yet, in the real world, even if one of them was bi or gay, it’s ex­tremely doubt­ful that he’d come out, as to this day, still no­body has done this in what is the top tier of British pro­fes­sional soc­cer. Con­sid­er­ing that the ac­cepted norm is that 5% 7% of the pop­u­la­tion is thought not to be straight, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble that there’d be no one of this per­sua­sion in this league as it’s 1,500 play­ers strong. Hence, it’s nec­es­sary to ex­am­ine why a person’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is still such a ta­boo sub­ject in the high­est ech­e­lons of this sport and

the prin­ci­pal rea­sons why there are no openly gay play­ers in the Pre­mier League.

Maybe one fac­tor why no­body in this divi­sion has said they are not straight is that what hap­pened to the first top-flight pro­fes­sional to do so, Justin Fashanu, still lingers in the mem­ory.

The skil­ful cen­tre-for­ward, who started his ca­reer at Nor­wich in 1978, be­came Bri­tain’s ear­li­est £1mil­lion black foot­baller when he trans­ferred to Not­ting­ham For­est three years later.

How­ever, Not­ting­ham’s man­ager, Brian Clough, dis­mayed that his new charge might not be straight, gave him a dress­ing down: “‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I sup­pose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep go­ing to that bloody poofs’ club?’”

Sub­se­quently, Fashanu was banned from train­ing with the first team; and be­ing the vic­tim of ho­mo­pho­bia and ex­cluded con­trib­uted to a loss of self-be­lief and his per­for­mances on the pitch suf­fered. Shortly af­ter­wards, the striker was shipped off to Notts County, the be­gin­ning of a series of moves to other soc­cer out­fits over the next few years. In 1990, Fashanu came out, per­haps un­wisely to The Sun.

Press vil­i­fi­ca­tion and fam­ily re­jec­tion fol­lowed and, when charged with sex­ual as­sault while in the US in 1998 (he al­ways main­tained it was con­sen­sual), the goal-poacher took his own life. In a sui­cide note, he lamented that there wouldn’t be a fair trial be­cause he was gay. And it’s plau­si­ble to as­sume that the dis­crim­i­na­tion the de­ceased ex­pe­ri­enced played a large role in his demise.

In spite of Fashanu’s sad, un­timely death serv­ing as a cau­tion­ary tale, would it still im­pact on a player who wants to come out to­day? Af­ter all, it oc­curred nearly two decades ago. In the main, aren’t at­ti­tudes to ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in Bri­tain to­tally dif­fer­ent now? For in­stance, as LGBT peo­ple we are now al­lowed to serve in the armed forces; the age of con­sent be­tween gay men has been equalised; and even a coali­tion led by the right-of-cen­tre Tories, changed leg­is­la­tion to en­able us to wed.

But en­shrin­ing LGBT rights in law doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­late to ev­ery sec­tion of so­ci­ety be­com­ing more open­minded. For ex­am­ple, in a BBC Ra­dio 5 live on­line sur­vey of 2,896 sports fans in Eng­land, Scot­land and Wales that was car­ried out last Oc­to­ber, 8% of foot­ball sup­port­ers went as far to say they’d stop fol­low­ing their side if it had a gay player. And ac­cord­ing to data from Kick It Out, a third party re­port­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion, the num­ber of ver­i­fied acts of ho­mo­pho­bia in soc­cer has gone up from 23 in the 2013/14 sea­son to 68 last year.

In the last decade, var­i­ous British sports stars have come out: race walker Tom Bos­worth; ath­lete Robert Newton; and diver Tom Da­ley. If the lat­ter, who ar­guably has as high a pro­file as al­most any top-flight foot­baller can re­veal that he is at­tracted to the same sex, what’s stop­ping those in the Pre­mier League?

A par­tial ex­pla­na­tion of why no­body’s come out could be to do with the ac­tual cul­ture at some of the 20 Pre­mier League clubs. In that, it’s often over­looked that it’s the peo­ple that run each in­di­vid­ual en­ter­prise that are re­spon­si­ble for the over­all tone and at­mos­phere.

At least three top-flight chair­men grew up in coun­tries where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal. For in­stance, imag­ine what Sheikh Man­sour, who con­trols the levers of power at Manch­ester City, would think if a mem­ber of his side said they were gay while he was in charge? In his na­tion, the United Arab Emi­rates, he’s the Deputy Prime Min­is­ter so he plays a role in any leg­is­la­tion: those who aren’t straight can be pun­ished with im­pris­on­ment and chem­i­cal cas­tra­tion, in­ter alia.

Next in the chain of com­mand, as it were, is the man­ager who han­dles the day-to-day af­fairs of a club. We’ve al­ready at­tested to the sen­ti­ments of Brian Clough; and, in 2002, Phil Sco­lari, who took charge of Pre­mier League out­fit Chelsea in the 2008-2009 sea­son, stated he’d have chucked a player out of the team if he dis­cov­ered he was gay.

Ac­cord­ing to Alan Smith, who han­dled the af­fairs of Crys­tal Palace for a while in the 1990s and 2000s: “You can get drunk and beat up your wife and that’s quite ac­cept­able, but if some­one were to say ‘I’m gay’, it’s con­sid­ered aw­ful. It’s ridicu­lous.”

Of course, all of these views were ex­pressed vir­tu­ally a decade ago. Since then, the Pre­mier League has be­come much more cos­mopoli­tan with an in­flux of for­eign coaches, some of whom are com­par­a­tively young, so may have a more mod­ern, lib­eral mind­set. Not­with­stand­ing, there

“En­shrin­ing LGBT rights in law doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­late to ev­ery sec­tion of so­ci­ety be­com­ing more OPEN-MINDED ”

“If some­one comes out and sec­tions of their own team’s crowd can be HATE­FUL, IT’S NOT DIf­fi­CULT to en­vi­sion what the ri­val sup­port­ers might be like”

are clearly still some man­agers from the old school, who might have a few old-fash­ioned ideas.

In the UK, soc­cer has a pyra­mi­dal struc­ture: the Pre­mier League sits at the top, im­me­di­ately above the Foot­ball League (Cham­pi­onship, League One and League Two), with sev­eral more lev­els below. The Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion (the FA) is the body re­spon­si­ble for reg­u­la­tion of this whole set-up, and the grass­roots.

Just last Oc­to­ber, while ap­pear­ing be­fore a De­part­ment for Cul­ture, Me­dia, and Sport se­lect com­mit­tee, its chair­man, Greg Clarke, as­serted: “It would be im­pos­si­ble for a gay Pre­mier League player to come out.” He an­tic­i­pated that they’d be the vic­tim of “sig­nif­i­cant abuse” from the crowd.

“It’s prac­ti­cally in­con­ceiv­able that some sort of vit­riol wouldn’t be di­rected against gay play­ers if they came out,” says Paul Amann, the Liver­pool FC Sup­port­ers’ Com­mit­tee rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the club’s LGBT spec­ta­tors. He hasn’t per­son­ally been sub­jected to ho­mo­pho­bic abuse when he has watched matches at An­field, but has heard his own fans use trans­pho­bic slurs such as “lady boy”. It’s al­ways left him feel­ing “let down and dis­ap­pointed” and is one of the rea­sons Kop Outs, his team’s LGBT fan group, was es­tab­lished. “One thing we’ve tried to achieve is to get a ticket al­lo­ca­tion that al­lows us to sit to­gether dur­ing games. Be­cause some of our mem­bers, es­pe­cially those from the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity, don’t feel com­fort­able or safe mixed in with the gen­eral crowd.”

If some­one comes out and sec­tions of their own team’s crowd can be hate­ful, it’s not dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion what the ri­val sup­port­ers might be like. Foot­ball is a deeply tribal game where pas­sions run deep, and some of the fol­low­ers of the op­po­si­tion often share a vile ha­tred of each other. Manch­ester United fa­nat­ics fre­quently spew out in­cen­di­ary barbs about the Hey­sel and Hills­bor­ough dis­as­ters, which Liver­pool FC was in­volved in, while their afi­ciona­dos taunt the Old Traf­ford faith­ful about their club’s black­est day, the 1958 Mu­nich air crash. In such a hos­tile at­mos­phere, where no sort of bile seems to be off lim­its, it could be open sea­son on a gay player.

Yet, in­sults and all man­ner of prej­u­dice can flow even when there is not a par­tic­u­lar an­tipa­thy be­tween clubs. Brighton & Hove Al­bion FC and their devo­tees have re­peat­edly been on the re­ceiv­ing end of ho­mo­pho­bic slurs (e.g. by Ar­se­nal and Ip­swich fol­low­ers in 2013), be­cause their town is re­garded as the UK’s un­of­fi­cial “gay cap­i­tal”. Any won­der, then, that Amer­i­can-born Rob­bie Rogers de­cided to quit Cham­pi­onship side Leeds and re­tire from foot­ball com­pletely, be­fore he came out four years ago. He be­lieved it to be “im­pos­si­ble” to dis­close his sex­u­al­ity while he was still com­pet­ing, men­tion­ing that there was a like­li­hood of abuse by sup­port­ers and play­ers. Even­tu­ally the left mid­fielder did re­turn to the game but State­side, in Ma­jor League Soc­cer, where he was as­ton­ished by the over­whelm­ing sup­port he got from his new team­mates, fans, and over the web.

One in­di­vid­ual in the Pre­mier League has come out, Thomas Hitzlsperger, but once again it was af­ter he’d hung up his boots. Al­though the Ger­man mid­fielder cited the tim­ing of his de­ci­sion was due to him want­ing to con­cen­trate on be­ing the best he could be while play­ing, one sus­pects that he had some of the same fears as Rogers.

Funke Awoderu, the FA’s In­clu­sion and Di­ver­sity Man­ager, points out: “Our at­ti­tude to any prej­u­dice di­rected to­wards the LGBT com­mu­nity (or any mi­nor­ity group), is that it’s not some­thing that has any place in foot­ball. It’s true, per­haps a decade ago we weren’t re­ally ready to ad­dress this is­sue and at that time our fo­cus was on racism. How­ever, in the last few years we have ei­ther launched or backed a series of ini­tia­tives to at­tempt to tackle ho­mo­pho­bia.”

One such ven­ture is the Rain­bow Laces cam­paign. Orig­i­nally started in 2013 by Stonewall, it’s where the epony­mous ties are dis­trib­uted to ev­ery top-flight club and many from the lower di­vi­sions, who wear them in their boots as a mes­sage of anti-ho­mo­pho­bia.

Funke stresses: “The FA will never shirk away from ad­dress­ing ho­mo­pho­bia - any par­tic­i­pants in foot­ball (coaches, ref­er­ees, vol­un­teers et al) have to abide by our rules and guide­lines or can face sanc­tions.”

This ap­plies to the play­ers too, on and off the field. Liver­pool’s Rob­bie Fowler was given a six­match ban and £32,000 fine in 1999, owing to him aim­ing taunts of an anti-gay na­ture at Chelsea mid­fielder Graeme le Saux dur­ing a game (this penalty was also due to the cen­tre-for­ward sim­u­lat­ing tak­ing co­caine in an­other match); and, as re­cently as last year, Coven­try City de­fender Chris Stokes was fined, banned and sent on an FA ed­u­ca­tion course (the FA or­gan­ise for academy play­ers to re­ceive in­struc­tion con­cern­ing ho­mo­pho­bia) for tweet­ing the word “fag­gots” when re­mark­ing about a Chelsea-Spurs Pre­mier League en­counter.

And just be­cause they’re in a crowd, big­ots who use ho­mo­pho­bic lan­guage will not nec­es­sar­ily get away with it. Per­haps stamp­ing out this type of abuse should be the foot­ball au­thor­i­ties’ biggest pri­or­ity: the afore­men­tioned BBC Ra­dio 5 live sur­vey said 50% of sup­port­ers had heard anti-gay slurs dur­ing games. Fans who do this can be ejected from the ground, banned or even re­ported to the po­lice open­ing up the threat of con­vic­tion.

The con­tin­u­ing use and, hope­fully, even­tual in­crease of anti-ho­mo­pho­bic mea­sures in the “beau­ti­ful game”, will grad­u­ally en­gen­der the sort of at­mos­phere where the whole LGBT com­mu­nity feels safe, as might a Pre­mier League player who wishes to come out.

Pleas­ingly, the FA says it will sup­port any­one in the top flight who de­cides to do this, but it’s some­thing that would take a lot of courage. Not only might a foot­baller face the po­ten­tial re­jec­tion from their club hi­er­ar­chy, team­mates and own fans, they could be ridiculed by ri­val spec­ta­tors.

And then there’d be the me­dia at­ten­tion, with the pres­sure of be­ing the first one to stick their head above the I’m-not-straight para­pet – who’d fancy get­ting spo­ken about not be­cause they were bang­ing in the goals, but due to the fact they were gay. On the other hand, some­one who is hid­ing their sex­ual pref­er­ence may be strug­gling men­tally, dis­tressed that they can’t be their true self. And this could re­flect on their form in a neg­a­tive way. And, dare I say it, in a league that al­ready has an un­savoury crack co­caine-like ad­dic­tion to money, who­ever is brave enough to come out could prob­a­bly dra­mat­i­cally in­crease their com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity.

We all need role mod­els and some­body we can look up to, mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity, per­haps more than most. So it would be great if ev­ery­one who has got any in­ter­est in soc­cer had the same at­ti­tude as Arsène Wenger, the Ar­se­nal man­ager, in an in­ter­view he did with his club mag­a­zine in May 2014: “It would be good if four, five, six peo­ple come out…I think foot­ball is there to pro­voke mo­ments of hap­pi­ness, ex­cite­ment and pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences in peo­ple, no mat­ter where they come from, what colour skin they have, what re­li­gion they are or what their pre­ferred sex­u­al­ity is.”

RUS­SELL TOVEY AND ARINZÉ KENYE IN GAY FOOT­BALL DRAMA THE PASS (LIONSGATE FILMS)

THOMAS HITZLSPERGER CC EGGHEAD06

ROB­BIE ROGERS

CC NOAH SALZMAN

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