Conor Heffernan talks about homophobia in football, and the fact that not a whole lot has changed in the past 25 years.
In 1990, the Sun Newspaper ran an exclusive story with English footballer Justin Fashanu in which the young man revealed he was gay. Displaying its usual sensitivity to personal matters, the Sun ran with the headline “1m Football Star: I AM GAY”.
Within the interview, Fashanu claimed that he was accepted by the majority of his colleagues but that times were still hard for a gay footballer. Fashanu admitted his fellow players would often make crude jokes and snide comments about his sexual orientation. Rather than open the floodgates for other players to come out, Fashanu became a figure of ridicule on the pitch and off it.
Subjected to horrendous abuse from the stands, the press and his fellow professionals, his career never recovered. Since then football has moved on, or at least it pretends to have.
In England ex-Premiership footballer Paul Elliot has estimated that there are at least a dozen gay Premiership footballers that are afraid to “come out” due to the perception that they would receive undue negative attention. Justin Fashanu was one painful example of the vitriol aimed at gay sportsmen. Rather than being encouraged to come out, players are being advised in England to stay ‘in the closet’ at all costs.
Football agent Max Clifford has admitted that he encourages his players to hide their sexual orientation for fear of the abuse they will suffer. Justin Fashanu was testament to the abuse that can occur. When Justin tragically took his young life in 1998, his coroner claimed that the prejudices he experienced whilst in England on account of his sexuality were a contributory cause.
Part of the problem in English football is that the word ‘gay’ is still archaically used as an insult. Players deemed to be intelligent, such as Graeme le Saux or Pat Nevin have been labelled as homosexuals in the past for their interest in the arts or in le Saux’s case, for reading the Guardian.
Many of us will have seen the image of Robbie Fowler taunting the former Chelsea defender by waving his backside at him in a game for Liverpool in 1999. More recently, certain football grounds, which will remain nameless, have gained a reputation for homophobic chanting. English football wasn’t ready for a gay player in the ‘90s, and arguably it’s still not.
Across the pond in the US, matters are somewhat more progressive but only just. At least one former US international has declared he is gay. In 2013, former Leeds United and USA midfielder, Robbie Rogers came out in the press. His reasoning for such a bold move was simple.
“Secrets can cause so much internal damage.”
For all the plaudits Rogers earned, commentators noted that he still felt he needed to wait until his career was effectively over before making the decision to come out in the press. Following his announcement, the American and British Media’s reaction, with blazing headlines declaring “Gay Footballer”, turned what should have been a deeply personal moment for the American into a spectacle.
It’s sad to think that a person’s sexual orientation should make front-page news, but in the macho world of football, homophobia still reigns supreme.
Such a problem isn’t confined to the English-speaking world either.
In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, earlier in the week AS Roma goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis claimed he believed that at least “two-to-three per cent” of his Serie A colleagues are gay, but that they are terrified of coming out because football is still a deeply homophobic environment. In Sanctis’s words
“Nobody has ever had the courage to come out because unfortunately ours is a homophobic environment.”
He has a point. In 2009, then manager of the Italian National team, Marcello Lippi told fans
“Imagine how a homosexual couple in football would be perceived. Even if, socially, most people would support and understand such a situation, it would nonetheless become magnified and eventually would be viewed negatively.”
Lippi’s views aren’t in isolation either. Antonio Cassano has been very vocal in the past on this issue that homosexuals should keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Often relied upon by the National side, Cassano has been fined for anti-homosexuals barbs in the past. If Italy’s top footballers aren’t inclusive, there’s little hope the fans would be. In a statement that is as sad as it is perhaps true, De Sanctis ended his interview by claiming that in today’s current football climate it would be career suicide for a player to come out.
Within the broader picture, someone’s sexual orientation really should not be a point of contention or even a talking point in any workplace. It’s a personal decision and tells nothing of a person as an individual. Yet in the current footballing climate, players are being made to feel unwelcome on account of their sexuality.
The fact that players are forced to go through a career fearing they’ll be ‘outed’ is a saddening thought. Football was a homophobic world in 1990, and more than two decades on, little appears to have changed.
For a sport that advertises itself as all-inclusive, the beautiful game has a lot of growing up to do.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.