Is British football institutionally homophobic?
It’s a question that has long been swept under the rug when talking about football. The Premier League’s complete absence of a gay player has meant the issue has always been ‘off piece’ and hardly current.
But an MP’s enquiry into the FA’s attempt to promote equality in football last month has re-ignited the topic. Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association, and by rights one of the most influential people in English football, was crude and candid in his analysis that gay players would suffer ‘significant abuse’ and that he was ‘cautious of encouraging people to come out’.
Reacting to this, Keegan Hirst, Rugby League’s first gay player, called these comments ‘negative’ and ‘old fashioned’, adding that Clarke was ignorant and should ‘get out on the terraces more and see what is really going on’.
So after years of silence on the matter, football has suddenly found itself in a public tug of war, with sporadic outbursts from a number of ex players and personalities offering wavering opinions.
So how has it come to this? In 2016, gay marriage is now legal in the UK and the US; most other sports have had high profile individuals take the plunge by coming out. But Premier League football? Well, there’s barely anything to say.
As a brief historiography, homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967 but attitudes remained unwelcomingly rigid for decades. It was only super-high profile cases in other walks of British culture, like the emergence of Freddie Mercury (the front man of Queen) in the 1980s, and Justin Fashanu, the Norwich striker who tragically hanged himself after coming out, that slowly started to influence changes in public opinion.
But since the Premier League’s inauguration in 1992, no one has taken the ‘plunge’. Incidents involving retired England player Graeme Le Saux and BBC pundit Pat Nevin have been minor ‘noises’ in the equality vacuum, but otherwise very little has happened over 25 years.
Both Le Saux and Nevin were heterosexual and both were abused (heavily in the case of Le Saux) for having ‘exotic tastes’. Nevin confessed that he enjoyed going to the theatre while Le Saux was seen reading the Guardian newspaper (genuinely).
Paul Elliot, the former Chelsea player who works with football diversity campaign Kick it Out, has said at least 12 Premier League players are gay. So why haven’t they come out? Is it the unfathomable abuse from the terraces and social media that could potentially de-rail a career? Is it the enormity of being the first player to take ‘the plunge’?
Why have Nigel Owens and Gareth Thomas in Rugby Union, John Amaechi in Basketball, Casey Stoney in Women’s football and Olympic gold medal winning diver Matthew Mitcham been able to take the ‘plunge’? What’s the difference?
Greg Clarke’s comments may well be ignorant and the issue may rest on the audacity of one brave individual, but until someone takes the step towards embracing themselves in a prejudice free environment, his comments are- ultimately- vindicated.
A BBC survey has said 8% of football fans would actually stop watching their team if they signed a gay player. And as Clarke highlights, the issue actually lies with a ‘small minority’ in the terraces.
‘When you’re in a big crowd, you’re anonymous and bad people get brave’, Clarke explains. It only takes one comment, from one person, to warrant abuse and ignite mob mentality. Read Le Saux’s excellent and harrowing account to understand what the psychological effect of being abused from the stands is like.
For many, a Premier League football career is short lived and pressurised. Rationally, why compromise it at the risk of abuse? Those who think people ‘don’t care’ about homosexuality have clearly never been singled out as a minority in a crowd.
The quotations coming out in the press split the debate further. Chris Sutton thinks there’s never been ‘a better time’; Gary Lineker thinks a crowd’s reaction would be ‘hugely supportive’; Robbie Fowler and Robbie Savage- tormenters of Le Saux- have complete confidence that fans would respect it.
But it’s easy to make those comments from the heterosexual side of the fence.
Until someone takes the plunge, how can anyone genuinely say British football isn’t institutionally homophobic?