This weekend on September 22 and 23, professional footballers from all 134 pro clubs in the UK have been invited to wear rainbow laces in their boots to show support for the 'Right Behind Gay Footballers'.
The campaign comes from Stonewall (the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity) who have teamed up with Paddy Power in order to promote the drive (Joey Barton has been very quick to back the campaign, tweeting: 'Join the rainbow laces movement. Sexuality in sport should not be an issue in the 21st century'). Currently, there are no openly gay players in English or Scottish football. Maybe there are none, however it seems unlikely.
Stonewall have helped by applying maths to the situation: There are approximately 5,000 professional players in England and Scotland. Assuming a likelihood that six percent of any random sample would be homosexual, the chance of there not being one gay person in a population of 5,000 is 1 in 2.29 x 10^134.
In long form, that's 1 in 22,947,321,563,647,480,000,000,000,000,
You have a better chance of being killed by a mountain lion; a better chance of a meteor hitting your house; a better chance of shuffling a deck of cards and having them be in the perfect order of suit and number.
With that in mind, we have to ask the question, why are there no openly gay footballers in this country? Why don't they feel comfortable in 'coming out'? And in the highly unlikely situation that there are genuinely no gay professional footballers, what is it about the sport that repels the gay community? In most other areas of life, people can be open about their sexuality; why can't that happen in football?
In 2009, Stonewall published a report delving into the subject of homophobia in football. These are some of the main findings:
Three in four fans think there is are gay players in the Premier League or Championship. Seven in 10 fans have heard homophobic abuse from the terraces. Two thirds of fans would be comfortable with a player on their team came out, but only one in eight fans think there may be a gay player in their team.
More than one in four fans think professional football is anti-gay. Almost two thirds of fans think football would be a better sport with the eradication of homophobia. Over half of football fans don't think the FA, Premier League and football are doing enough to combat homophobia. Half of football fans think their club is doing enough to combat homophobia.
One in four fans feel football is anti-gay, compared to one in 10 fans who think football is racist. It is down to the hard work of many campaigns in football, many players speaking out and all the different initiatives that have helped suppress racism in football, but why has one act of hate been treated with greater significance than the other? There is no room for any act of hatred, abuse or discrimination in the game.
Regrettably, homophobia has a long history within football, although, Justin Fashanu is the only ever openly gay footballer in this country. He came out in 1990 and tragically took his own life eight years later. The abuse he received was horrendous. From fans, colleagues, his manager Brian Clough and even his brother, John Fashanu, publicly disowned him. This wasn't the reason he committed suicide, but it could be accountable for his personal demise.
More recently, Robbie Rogers, ex-Leeds and USA midfielder, came out in February of this year. However he quickly quit the game, saying that 'remaining in football after publicly declaring your homosexuality was impossible.' He obviously had a change of heart before reversing his decision as he is now playing for LA Galaxy. Albeit, Rogers has publicly said it is the fans attitudes which stop gay players from coming out.
Sadly, it isn't hard to see why Rogers felt this way. Ian Trow and a 14-year-old boy were charged with anti-gay abuse directed towards Sol Campbell in 2008 during a game between Portsmouth and Tottenham. They chanted the following: 'Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, you're on the verge of lunacy; we don't care if you're hanging from a tree; cos you're a judas **** with HIV.' Campbell said he felt 'victimised and helpless' by the abuse.
Campbell had been receiving this abuse for years however. In 2005, his brother was jailed for 12 months for attacking a man who suggested Sol was homosexual. Campbell married his girlfriend of two years in 2010; why was he subjected to such anti-gay abuse? Unfortunately, this isn't even the only instance.
Graeme Le Saux endured much homophobic abuse for years - despite being married with children. The abuse wasn't just from the fans either. Robbie Fowler, during a game between Liverpool and Chelsea in 1999, was involved in a series of taunts towards Le Saux, which resulted in Le Saux lashing out and striking the Liverpool star. Both were charged with misconduct.
Le Saux has said he was very close to walking away from football due to the abuse he received. He said he felt like a kid being bullied in the playground. Le Saux and Campbell are both seemingly heterosexual, yet there have been people in the past who have just tried to think of something offensive to say, but also something that won't get them into too much trouble.
Disgustingly, we live in a society where the word 'gay' is a multi-purpose sobriquet used, mainly, as an adjective insinuating something is bad. It's fantastic to see the majority of people have stopped making racist comments, but so sad to see people don't see anti-gay words as an issue.
Rio Ferdinand was being interviewed by Chris Moyles on the radio back in 2006 and ended up calling him, in jest, a f****t. After England's exit from the World Cup in 2006, The Sun referred to Cristiano Ronaldo as a 'nancy boy'. Why is this deemed appropriate? This is no different to using racial slurs towards ethnic minorities; they are words used to degrade another human being for matters that are out of their own hands. One can't help being gay as much as they can help being white.
It doesn't end. In 2002, Luiz Felipe Scolari said that if he found out one of his players was gay, he would throw them out the team. That type of vile rancor should have created an uproar. This shows how hard it is to be openly gay in the modern game and how far we have to go to create an environment where players can feel comfortable enough to come out. Is football ready for a player to come out? The most depressing thing is, the answer is probably not.
I do not intend to be rude or ignorant by saying that; I understand that hiding your sexuality, having to hide who you truly are can be a real burden and even hurtful and emotionally tiring. However, there are a few reasons why it may be best on a personal level.
First of all, with the modern day media burrowing into each players private lives, it could be a distraction. We've seen it happen before in the past with numerous other players, off-the-field problems can have real consequences on someone's form. The media pressure would be enormous, and on top of that you have to deal with the fans and fellow professionals. Football careers are short and delicate - could a player take the risk?
They might be okay in this country, but what if they want to go abroad? Due to the differences in culture, some people may be more hostile towards it. We all know how disgraceful racist abuse is in countries such as Russia (although they are fighting hard to prevent it); what if the abuse is just as bad towards homosexuals?
As homophobia in football has unfortunately been so low key in recent years, many people wouldn't actually know how to identify and deal with it. Officials and clubs need to be properly trained to be able to recognise the behavior and appropriately respond to it. The football associations need to train themselves to be ready for a player to come out. The heartbreaking story of Justin Fashanu should be a warning. Having said that, society has developed since 1990 and we may be able to deal with it better.
Now the rewards for a player could be huge. Openly gay athletes over the world are respected for more than just athletic achievement, (I'm thinking Martina Navratilova, Gareth Thomas) and a player can become a real role model and ambassador for the sport and equality within it.
Athletes are thrust into the public eye and it is thought they owe it to society to be good role models. But is this fair? Should someone be held to a higher standard just because they're in the public eye? It isn't a footballers job to be a social pioneer, it's their job to play football - should they be judged on anything more than that?
Tony Cascarino believes that football's dressing rooms are not mature enough to accept gay players. There are many sides to the argument on whether or not a player should come out and people may not agree with Cascarino, but he makes a very good point:
"Would a player mind if he found out a team-mate was gay? Probably. Players wouldn't want to be left alone with him, they wouldn't want to shower with him. Before you rush to criticise, would you find it acceptable for a man to walk around a women’s dressing-room? More importantly, team-mates would be self-conscious around the player," he wrote in The Times.
"The sexual banter would develop an uncomfortable edge if it continued. It is an undesirable scenario for a manager, since an uneasy and divided squad is not a recipe for success. A gay player himself would probably feel equally ill-at-ease.
"Dressing-rooms are like perverted nudist camps. Immature, wild places, little self-contained states where the normal rules of common decency and acceptable behaviour do not apply. Sexual activity and bodily functions are props players use for pranks and banter."
Stonewall's report was compiled four years ago now. Yet, not much seems to have changed. In 2009, the Justin Campaign (a campaign name after Justin Fashanu to highlight the prevalence of homophobia in football) created the first ever 'Football vs Homophobia' day; an international day opposing homophobia in football, held annually on February 19th - the birthday of Justin Fashanu.
Being honest with yourself, how many people actually knew about this? I'm as guilty as anyone, it wasn't until doing my own research did I find out about this; but this isn't entirely the fault of fans - why hasn't this campaign been in the public eye? It wasn't until February of this year when the FA decided to issue a toolkit to all 92 pro clubs in England to help fight against homophobia in the game. Even sadder than this is a month later, only 29 of those 92 clubs were actively engaged in the campaign.
It is upsetting to see not all clubs have been actively engaged until now, but worse than that, it is honestly detestable to think that some fans, players and managers and even colleagues can behave so atrociously and hold so much animosity towards someone for something that they cannot control and for something that doesn't even concern them. The only reason you have a right to judge a footballer is by what he does on the pitch.
Your sexuality is a very personal thing - no-one should be able to dictate to someone when and how they choose to reveal their sexuality. The issue is football all around the world hasn't created an atmosphere where players have felt safe enough to come out. I hope within the next 10 years that can be achieved.The rainbow laces won't end homophobia, but it can be the start of something huge in the sport. After all, you have to make ripples before you can make waves.
I urge anyone who has read this article to show their support. Find out more information; there is an enormous amount out there (I have chosen not to share some stories due to the upsetting nature of them). Challenge homophobia in the sport whenever they see it, spread the message, share some of the images Paddy Power have created on social media, and if you have twitter, please show your support by using the hashtag #RBGF.
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