Tuesday 11 August ~
While the Football Association deliberates about how to tackle homophobia, the publicist Max Clifford ruffled a few feathers last week, saying that English football in the Dark Ages, football supporters are basically homophobic scum, and that "If a gay footballer comes out, his career is over". Out of some 5,000 professional footballers in England and Wales, it is highly probable that a few hundred of these may be gay or bisexual.
Many of these have gone to great lengths to keep their private lives from being divulged by a gutter press, who seem determined to wage a Macarthyite witch-hunt to expose them. Who can blame them for staying closeted and who would want to be the first to come out? The only known gay player so far was Justin Fashanu – and he committed suicide.
For all the millennium bug-style hysteria, I suspect such a coming out will be a non-event, and for the player in question, it may even lead to commercial openings. Things have changed greatly since Fashanu’s time, with gays visible in all areas of public life outside the sporting world – including the armed forces. Gay football teams even play in local leagues, and some clubs, such as Manchester City, are vying to enter Stonewall’s Workplace Equality index employers’ list.
Piara Powar, the director of Kick It Out, the FA and PFA-funded group responsible for tackling discrimination, thinks that Clifford is scaremongering. For starters, the FA is clamping down on homophobic abuse, with criminal convictions and match bans. Rule E3(2) and E4 of the Players’ Code penalises it as heavily as racial abuse, and match officials are being trained to prevent anything like the Graeme Le Saux-Robbie Fowler incident in 1999 from being repeated. Powar argues such an individual would be feeling more supported than regular players, with most team-mates, fans, and a good proportion of the media rallying round.
For sponsors, the first gay players would be a novelty. Many big-name manufacturers want to promote themselves as gay-friendly. At the same time, very few products, even in sport, sell the traditional, exclusively heterosexual side of masculinity. David Beckham revels in being a gay icon. And here’s one extra reason for coming out: it strengthens team spirit. Cohesion is based on trust, which in turn is based on honesty. There are even psychological studies from Cornell University in the US showing that inability to be open leads to poor performance in spatial reasoning and endurance tests.
Ben Summerskill at Stonewall thinks it could take two decades to eradicate homophobia from the game. As if Oakwell is the new Afghanistan. Challenging ideas of masculinity begins and ends with two simple questions: would any self-important, preening, prima donna footballer care to claim himself more of a man than, for instance, James Wharton, the openly gay trooper featured on the cover of July 2009’s Soldier magazine? Who risks the most in their respective fields of combat?
Sure, it would mean a lot to the gay community if a player were able to come out. Most of us, though, have enough self-respect and without needing a role-model trophy cabinet, thanks. Besides, the world would be a better place if all private affairs of celebrities were kept out of the media. But what is most important is to help create the environment where everyone can be accepted for who they are, and judged on their pitch performance alone. That’s what sportsmanship is all about. Either way, it’s time clubs stopped taking their fans for a fool by having publicists organise tawdry photo-shoot cover-ups with female socialites. Adrian Tippetts
The author is a PR consultant, writes on gay rights issues for Pink News and Winq magazine and is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter.