Is football as progressive as we think?
LGBT equality campaigners Stonewall led an anti-homophobia campaign on the weekend of the 25th and 26th of November and football clubs around the country rallied behind this important cause. There were multiple ways the industry got involved from rainbow captain’s armbands to special badges on the chests of managers and pundits to rainbow laces on the shoes of players.
But on the Friday night’s game between West Ham and Leicester, not a single player wore the rainbow laces. So the question is, is the campaign working?
In short, yes, but we need to continue to tackle the issue. Far more people are aware of its existence this year compared with previously and the message is definitely getting across to people. It was also disappointing to see that there were very few fundraising events going on specifically aimed at the fans outside the stadiums.
At Selhurst Park in the game against Stoke, for example, they were giving out free rainbow laces and while that is raising awareness, it isn’t tackling the root issue that derisory remarks against any minority are unacceptable.
In defence of some of the players, they might find it difficult to get behind the cause as they don’t see it as fundamental. It can be hard to truly relate to how these important these issues are without being from the LGBT community. However, everyone can understand how pivotal it is that we stamp out homophobia from the game. Football can’t solve social issues but it can tackle them by teaching the next generation of fans.
A great success story is racism. As all tiers of English football has become multicultural due to increased foreign transfers, the Football Association ran strong no-tolerance campaigns to remove racism from the game. The famous incident between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez in 2011 resulted in an eight-game ban for the Uruguayan for insulting Evra’s ethnicity and highlighted the progress the sport has made on the issue.
A similar incident for homophobia happened in a game between Liverpool and Chelsea in 1999 when Robbie Fowler taunted Graham Le Saux about his supposed homosexuality going as far as to moon him.
The reactions from fans in the stadium were mostly just laughing along but I think that if this happened in a game now the reaction would be firmly in defence of Le Saux. For his actions, Fowler got a two-game ban and he has since come out apologising profusely for his actions. Nowadays it would earn a five-game ban, the same tariff as racism.
This shows that football and the wider society is moving in the right direction but there is one glaring problem. There are undoubtedly gay footballers playing in the English leagues who must be struggling to maintain the secrecy that they feel is imperative and the fact that not one is comfortable about coming out means that we still have a long way to go.
Ex-Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger came out soon after retiring and said that the thing that made life most difficult for him were the casual homophobic remarks on the training ground in the form of banter. Players and coaches who said things that just chipped away at his moral strength. He believes that the next person that comes out will be on the brink of retiring because of the weight they would have to carry. When he came out the world wanted to speak to him and he had to turn off his phone to avoid it.
We can’t underestimate how much pressure a player would have to deal with if they came out whilst playing. Not only would they have to prove themselves on the pitch every game but they would fly the flag for the LGBT community in the sport. Media from around the world would be scrambling to talk to them and they would be plastered on the front page of every paper. It would be a massive psychological burden for anyone.
A way to share that burden would be for several footballers to come out together. It would also have a larger impact on football in general and would spark a major change as they shared their experiences, both positive and negative. We can’t force someone to come out though if they don’t feel like it’s the best decision for them.
Instead, we should strive to constantly improve the community and players who are in positions of power and respect should use their influence to make a change for the better.
The worse possible outcome is for people to see the rainbow laces initiative as a gimmick, a bare-minimum show of support for clubs to save face. We need to remember what they stand for. The principle of the game we all love is “football for all” and this is something everyone can buy into. Hopefully, in ten to 15 years time we’ll reach a point, similar to racism, where we won’t need to have massive campaigns because no decent person would even consider making discriminatory remarks.