Can football kick homophobia out of the beautiful game?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
There are 5000 professional footballers who play in the English football league. And yet, not a single one of them has come out of the closet.
Homophobia is the sport's last great taboo, and there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to LGBTQ rights in the beautiful game.
Paddy Power has tried to highlight the "statistical anomaly" that none of the 500 players in England's top tier is openly gay by having the "official bus of gay professional footballers" parade through Brighton Pride. The bus will be, of course, empty.
It is not the first time that the betting company has tackled LGBTQ issues in football. It pioneered the Rainbow Laces campaign with over 75,000 laces sent to fans, players, referees and officials. During this summer's World Cup in Russia, it donated money to LGBTQ causes every time the host nation scored. Its Rainbow Russians campaign raised £170,000 for the Attitude Foundation, which will support the LGBTQ community in football.
Whether you believe Paddy Power's latest publicity stunt is effective or problematic, there is a problem in the sport. The last time a footballer came out of the closet whilst still playing at the highest level was nearly three decades ago when Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay player. Sadly, in 1998, he committed suicide after years of homophobic abuse and allegations of sexual assault.
Former Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers and former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger have both come out as gay, but only after leaving England or the sport. Liam Davis, who was playing for Gainsborough Trinity in the sixth tier of English football in 2014, was accidentally outed by his local newspaper at the time.
FA chairman Greg Clarke admitted last year that not one single gay footballer has been willing to meet him in private to discuss inclusion in the game. He said that he was "aware of at least two gay players in the Premier League, one of them an England international, who had expressed a desire to come out last season, but never did", Sky Sports reports. Clarke had previously said that any footballer revealing themselves to be gay would be “taking a risk” of being ostracised within the game.
But why are so few footballers willing to be open about their sexuality? The abuse from the terraces may not help. According to research from LGBT charity Stonewall, 72 per cent of football fans have heard homophobic abuse being used during games. Younger fans may not be accepting of a LGBTQ footballer with the survey finding that one in five 18 to 24-year-olds say they would be embarrassed if their favourite player came out. They are also twice as likely to say homophobic language is harmless if it is just meant as 'banter'.
There were some encouraging results from the report, however. Across the general population, 88 per cent of football fans would be either ‘proud’ or ‘neutral’ if their favourite player came out as gay, and nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) said more should be done to make LGBTQ people feel accepted in sport.
Stonewall is working with the Premier League to help further promote LGBTQ equality in football. In November, they announced a three-year partnership to encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to get involved in the sport. This could involve playing the beautiful game, supporting a club, or working in an off-pitch role.
This makes a change from football's traditional stance of staying silent on LGBTQ issues. According to Campaign Live, in 2005, the BBC asked all 20 Premier League managers to comment on the subject, but every single one declined. And five years later, the FA asked players to take part in an anti-homophobia video, but not one would take part.
Football fans are also more confident in reporting homophobic abuse and discriminatory language, according to Pride in Football. The LGBTQ alliance group said: "In the last years, the growing number of groups have helped make visible and vocal a significant part of the football community previously ignored and often alienated - by offensive and discriminatory language and behaviour as well as by a lack of response to incidents by clubs and other authorities.
"The visibility of this community in football through group banners in stadia and a presence on social media has empowered not just LGBT+ fans but supporters in general to challenge unacceptable incidents."
There are one in 50 people in the UK who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. When it comes to the top tier of English football, with 500 players, there are none willing to come out. In fact, out of the 5000 professional footballers, not one current player is openly gay. Football needs to kick homophobia out of the beautiful game, but it will take one boot to get the ball on its way.