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