The modern sporting world is at a crossroads. Every endeavour is being made to make sport more tolerant; in aspects such as gender, disability and race. Recently we have seen the foundation of the Women’s Super League and unprecedented coverage of competitions such as the Women’s Cricket World Cup. Last summer, London hosted what IPC chair Sir Phillip Craven branded ‘the greatest Paralympic games ever’. Racism appears to be being attacked from every angle, with mass support coming for AC Milan’s Kevin Prince Boateng for walking off the pitch amidst racist chants, and the FA’s Respect campaign gathering momentum. But homosexuality is still a hurdle that needs to be overcome for sporting authorities; particularly in football.
It speaks volumes that footballers can cheat on their wives and partners, crash cars and face jail time, yet being gay is still taboo. Despite his well-documented exploits, Ashley Cole tops shirt sales, and was described as a ‘legend’ when receiving his 100th cap. Alan Smith, ex-manager of Crystal Palace, commented that ‘you can get drunk and beat up your wife, but if someone were to say ‘I’m gay’, it’s considered awful. It’s ridiculous.’
The Western world has been long accepting of homosexuality, so one could be forgiven for thinking that the footballing authorities should have done more to protect homosexual sportsmen and women. Take FIFA president Sepp Blatter, for example. In another remarkable feat of incompetency, when asked about any cultural problems with hosting the 2022 World Cup in a conservative Arabic nation, Blatter declared that ‘they [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activity.’ Such ludicrous comments received international backlash from many equality groups. Notable among these was former NBA star John Amaechi, perhaps the most high-profile gay athlete, who branded Blatter’s comments as ‘absurd’. Amaechi retorted that Blatter’s comments effect not only those who are gay, but show that in ‘the seat of power, straight white men normally, are very, very clearly uncomfortable’ with homosexuality.
English football does not have a proud tradition when it comes to gay players either. A particular case of homophobia was shown towards Graham Le Saux. Despite now being married with two children, his playing days were hounded with accusations of homosexuality. This reached its peak with Robbie Fowler making homophobic gestures towards Le Saux during a Premier League match. Le Saux, perhaps understandably, hit Fowler when the referee’s back was turned. Both players were punished with FA fines, and the chance to make an example of Fowler was missed. Le Saux accredits the abuse he received to his university background, and the fact he did not live the ‘footballer lifestyle’. This highlights a key reason why the modern athlete may struggle to come out – acceptance. In a sport where your career is short, and you have to make as much as quickly as you can, being different does not help, and unfortunately for Le Saux, keeping his nose clean made him a target for abuse.
The FA is finally looking to address the issue. They launched a scheme in 2012, called ‘Opening Doors and Joining In’, which aims to include and involve openly LGBT athletes in football between 2012 and 2016. The plan centres very much on the ideas of acceptance, safety and inclusion in all levels of the sport; admirable goals that FA Chariman David Bernstein regards as ‘moral obligations.’ The creation of ‘gay-friendly’ teams is important as it creates a safe environment. But the plans still appear to emphasise a difference, a segregation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, that in the long run may result in bigotry.
Although not as systematic a plan as the English FA’s, the Dutch FA recently implemented their own method of combating homophobia. A humorous, yet touching, advert was broadcast, depicting a footballer training, playing and socialising in a closet costume, only to remove the costume to pose for a team photo. Perhaps an approach like the FA’s is not needed; all that is needed is acceptance, in a similar form to the advert’s slogan; ‘being gay, there’s nothing queer about it.’
It will take time to see whether the FA’s ambitious plan will work to accept and promote the presence of the LGBT community in English football. Although prejudice and bigotry will never be fully eradicated, the recent Parliamentary moves to legalise gay marriage shows that Britain, although it is bound to tradition, can adapt to social change. If this can be the case with marriage, why not sport?