(I would like to highlight that the following information is drawn from a football perspective within England)
“If a player did come out, I think everyone would be supportive, but I’m 100% sure that people in the changing room would be joking, and that some would be ripping it out of him. If there’s a gay player in our changing room, I’d understand why he wouldn’t come out.”
(Anonymous, professional League One player)
BBC Sport reported yesterday that Premier League executive Richard Scudamore supports the idea that openly gay footballers would be treated with respect in the Premier League.
This was a bold assumption from Scudamore, who has held his position as Chief Executive at the top flight of English Association Football for 16 years. Scudamore believed openly gay footballers would be treated with “tolerance” and “that the time would be right” to come out.
The Chief Executive however appeared ill informed on the subject. When discussing the gay footballer “coming out”, Scudamore questioned whether this language was appropriate and consistently referred to openly gay players as “them” and “they”.
There is only one openly gay player in English football. His name is Liam Davis, and he plays for Gainsborough Trinity. In an interview with BBC Sport in January 2014 Davis spoke about a fairly positive response from his team mates, opposition and fans. Davis stated that on the one occasion that he did encounter abuse from an opposition player, the player apologised for his behaviour after the match via a text message. During an interview with the Lincolnshire Echo Davis expressed his wishes that professional footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger would have “came out” before retiring in 2013. Davis did however admit, that the closer you get to the top flight then the harder it will be for players to be open about homosexuality due to greater media coverage and increased fan exposure. Davis seemed to be in the perfect community club environment to “come out”, and has received massive support from family, friends, team mates and the football club itself. However, the same cannot be said for others. And the fact of the matter is, out of the 2 million adults who participate in football every week in England only one is openly gay despite 1.5% of the English population being homosexual or bisexual. This does not support Scudmore’s statement, and it is plainly obvious that the environment in England is not entirely suitable for homosexual footballers.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa and German national player, also received positive responses upon coming out to the public. This is a great thing, however Hitzlsperger never experience a match day response inside a Premier League stadium. So there is no telling how a crowd would respond. I would like to think the reaction would be positive, but past experience tells us otherwise. Justin Fashanu, England U21 International, came out as homosexual in 1990 – he was the first footballer to do so in the United Kingdom. He committed suicide at the age of 37, tragically, as a response to his sexuality.
Fundamentally, the difficulty with this subject is that gay footballers are the invisible minority. Popular football magazine FourFourTwo reported a survey of professional footballers who responded to the question, “Do you know any gay players?” 11% of the 123 players asked responded “Yes”. (Please note that some Scottish Premier League players responded to this survey)
“A player confided in me and came out. I’ve kept my mouth shut. It’s none of my business. It’s no one’s business.”
This one response from a professional League Two player highlights the eagerness to protect gay footballers. This may seem like an act of kindness, but personally I believe this suggests a lack of tolerance in the English game.
The Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) was formed in 1989, “as a social network for LGB&T football fans across the UK.” The organisation uses football as a tool to tackle “homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia” on and off the football field. It has helped to establish LGBT supporters clubs, assisting the development of an inclusive and equal football fan experience. London based clubs, Arsenal FC and Tottenham Hotspurs, are two such clubs with LGBT supporters groups. The Gay Gooners and The Proud Lilywhites are the clubs official LGBT fan communities. These fierce rivals share solidarity and a common goal to create a safe and inclusive fan environment. BBC Newsbeat investigated LGBT supporters clubs in the Premier League in August this year. Excluding Arsenal FC, who formed the first Premier League LGBT group in 2013, BBC Newsbeat asked the remaining 19 clubs “if they had an official one connected with the club”. From the 11 respondents, 4 chose not to answer the question, 5 said that yes they did have LGBT fan groups and the remaining two stated that they didn’t have one at the current time.
GFSN have stressed that Premier League clubs are not doing enough to support their fans. Ed Connell, GSFN Chairman, is shocked at the number of Premier League clubs and officials (such as Richard Scudamore) who believe that homophobia in football is not a problem. Out of the Fields conducted the first International Study on homophobia in sport. The results were posted in May this year and despite the majority opinion, out of more than 9,000 people in the United Kingdom 77% claimed they had “witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport”.
Back to Richard Scudamore, the man who places blind faith on football and football fans to “tolerate” homosexuality. The statistics show little proof that coming out will be welcomed in English football. I hope I am proven incorrect, but I simply cannot support Scudamore’s thoughts. It is clear that we have a number of gay footballers who do not want to come out, for whatever reason. Clearly they are known to other professionals who they work with on a daily basis but they will not expose themselves to fans or the media. This highlights a significant problem with homosexual inclusion in English sport, particularly football. This problem isn’t exclusive to the football players alone, and football fans are seeking new ways to enjoy the sport that they love. Homosexual, bisexual and transgender fans are forming LGBT supporters groups in order to feel safe in Premier league grounds, and yet clubs, officials and executives are still denying that there is a problem. Without a shadow of a doubt Scudamore’s comments are ill informed and misjudged. I cannot say that I am a member of an LGBT group, but if I was I would not be very happy with my league executive for completely downplaying a very serious problem within football.