Coming out of the locker: where is the homosexuality in football?
In 2015 there were strong rumours that two Premier League footballers were going to come out. It was widely reported that they had told their friends and families and that they were working with the FA and their clubs to prepare for going public. At the time speculation on who those footballers were went into overdrive. Luke Shaw was widely assumed to be one of the two, while one bookmakers began taking bets. Shaw felt compelled to publicly deny he was gay.
Fast forward two years and neither of the two has publicly come out. Neither has anyone else. No one seems to be under any illusion that there are gay footballers. With around 4000 men in the top flight alone it is a statistical impossibility that there aren’t. However, since Robbie Rodgers in 2013, no one has felt comfortable and supported enough to make their homosexuality known publicly. Even Rodgers quit English football immediately after his announcement, initially retiring before going to play in his native USA. The sad fact is, there is very little precedent for players coming out in England and the limited precedent there is strongly suggests that you would be better off keeping your sexuality private.
An absence of role models?
To date the only English top flight footballer to come out has been Justin Fashanu, doing so in 1990. Before Justin’s announcement, his brother John, also a footballer, offered him £75,000 to keep quiet. Apparently the more talented of the two and the first black player to command a £1 million transfer fee, Justin soon found himself unable to stay at a club longer than 6 months. In contrast, his brother played for Wimbledon and represented England. In 1998, surrounding charges of sexually abusing a 17 year old boy in the US, Justin Fashanu took his own life.
More recently, in 2014, Thomas Hitzelsperger came out as gay, becoming the highest profile player to reveal his sexuality since Fashanu. His decision was met with support from media and also his former club Aston Villa who in a tweet announced their respect for him both as a player and ‘as a man’. Nonetheless, Hitzelsperger made his announcement shortly after his retirement despite saying that he had known he was gay for the past few years. Clearly he did not feel comfortable coming out while he was playing.
To date, Fashanu, Rodgers and Liam Davis, a lower League player who has spoken about the abuse he has received as a result, especially from fans, remain the only active players to come out, with Hitzelsperger making up the quartet of openly gay current and former players. Of those four, one has committed suicide, one immediately quit English football, one has spoken about the abuse he received and one waited until retirement to make his sexuality public knowledge.
What is holding gay players back?
In a recent interview Antoine Griezmann claimed that players are scared to come out because of the abuse they would face in stadia. It seems he’s right. If a player were to come out they would undoubtedly be supported by their club, large swathes of the media and the FA. But it would appear that the fear of the crowd and possibly of the locker room as well, is currently too much to overcome. The deafeaning silence from gay players also suggests that they feel the support they would receive would not do enough to counterbalance the abuse and attention they would also get.
Stonewall, an organisation dedicated to promoting LGBT tolerance, claims that 72% of football fans have heard anti-LGBT remarks at a game over the past 5 years. Homophobia is part of football’s culture and part of sport’s culture in general and so it is totally understandable why players are choosing to keep their sexualities private.
Players, gay or otherwise, do not want to hurt their career chances, they do not want to face vile abuse from the stands, they do not want the undoubted attention they would face and they do not want to hurt their career chances. They want to do their job, be able to enjoy playing the game they love and to have a good career. In no way is the onus of players to ‘step up’, but rather on the footballing community, from players to clubs to organisations, to do more to create a tolerant environment that makes sexuality as trivial as a player’s country of birth.
A football problem?
Across Europe there are only a handful of examples of players who have come out. Sport in general faces a similar problem although rugby does fare somewhat better with two active players revealing their sexuality in recent years, Sam Stanley in 2015 and Keegan Hirst in 2016, in addition to Gareth Thomas in 2009.
Sadly, football clearly has a serious problem with homosexuality, likely because of the hyper-masculine culture surrounding football and the often uncomfortable proximity to homo-erotica associated with it (from adoring your favourite player, to communal showers, to kissing your best mate when your team scores a 90th minute winner). Of course, society in general continues to have a problem with homosexuality, but the times are a-changing and football must work quickly not to be left behind.
Is enough being done?
In 2012 the FA began a 5-year anti-homophobia campaign. The previous campaign was blighted when players refused to take part in a video challenging homophobia because they feared ridicule, with the video eventually being cancelled at the last minute. The 2012 campaign has seen less controversy, but also a lack of, well basically anything. A google search of ‘FA anti-homophobia campaign’ will bring back a few mission statements and very few examples of anything being done.
The most prominent anti-homophobia campaign in recent years has been Stonewall’s rainbow laces iniative supported players, clubs and the Premier League. It had nothing to do with the FA whose work has perhaps been more grass roots, less visible and more bottom up. Whether that is the case or not, the FA needs to do more visible work to combat its clear failure to create a more tolerant environment allowing gay players to feel comfortable and accepted thus giving them to confidence to be open about their sexuality and to not feel as though it is a secret needing to be hidden.
Where is the homosexuality in football?
So to answer the question in the title. A little like love, homosexuality in football is all around. Gay footballers are not unicorns, they exist. Sadly, at the moment Antoine Griezmann appears correct in saying that players are too scared to come out. To change that the FA needs to do much more and what they do needs to be bold and visible. If another 5 years down the road no top tier players have felt supported enough to come out it will be a damning indictment on the FA, the Premier League and the football community, as well as British society more widely. Homosexuality can feel like the biggest deal in the world, then it can quickly seem entirely insignificant. It’s about time football ripped off its big gay plaster.