In her debut piece on the site, Leah Dunn offers her thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Robbie Rogers’ announcement that he’s gay…
Statistically we can almost be certain that there are several gay, professional footballers in this country alone. Even by the lowest estimates, gay individuals make up 1% of the total population; with approximately 5,000 professional footballers in the English football league, that equates to approximately 50 gay footballers plying their trade in the professional game. Yet still to this day there has only ever been one openly gay footballer – Justin Fashanu, a professional for a number of clubs between 1978 and 1998, who after publicly ‘coming out’ in a press interview in 1990, was subjected to abuse from his fellow professionals, his family and the terraces. Over 20 have since passed an Fashanu still remains a wholly unique case.
However, this situation isn’t exclusive to English football. Anton Hysen, a professional footballer for Swedish third division side Utsiktens BK is the world’s only current footballer who openly admits that he is gay…that is, unti today, when former Leeds United midfielder and USA international Robbie Rogers took to his blog to simultaneously announce both that he is gay and his retirement from professional football, aged just 25.
It cannot be underestimated the strength of mind it inevitably took Robbie to ‘come out’ after 25 years, the courage he has displayed is truly admirable.
One can only hope that Rogers’ decision to retire isn’t directly linked to his sexuality. His blog makes no direct reference to leaving the game based on the fear of homophobia or lack of acceptance and seems to suggest that he intends to walk away from football as for the past 25 years he’s used it to cover his sexuality. However, it would be naive to suggest that the fear of prejudice wouldn’t have crossed Rogers’ mind – whatever the case is, then I’m sure every Leeds, add indeed more generally, every football fan will join me in wishing him well in his future endeavours.
“A culture of silence”
Rogers’ subsequent retirement from the game, upon announcing his sexuality further highlights the distinct lack of active, homosexual footballers in the game. Many politicians and academics alike have linked this to the popularity of the sport. However, many professions which could also be deemed as operating in the public eye; such as politicians, comedians, pop stars, actors all have their fair share of gay and lesbian representatives. Indeed even in sports such as rugby and cricket a far more explicit degree of acceptance is evident – Wales’ most capped player Gareth Thomas and Surrey’s Steven Davies have both in recent years ‘come out’ and both spoken of the support and assistance they’ve received from their fellow professionals and fans alike. So why the silence amongst footballers?
In a 2012 documentary presented by Justin Fashanu’s niece, Amal, football’s philosopher-quoting, The Smiths loving, Joey Barton spoke candidly about football’s “archaic attitude” towards homosexuals. However, many current footballers, Ljungberg, Beckham, Anders Lindegaard, Philipp Lahm and Mario Gomez, amongst others have publicly stated that they would openly welcome a gay team-mate. Perhaps the issue then is based on the terraces?
A fans problem?
English footballers Sol Campbell and Graeme Le Saux, have been forthcoming in the past about the impact homophobic terrace chants have had on them. In his autobiography Le Saux speaks about how homophobic chanting left him close to walking away from football. If these attitudes still prevail decades after Justin Fashanu announcing his sexuality, it’s no wonder homosexual footballers are still reluctant to disclose their sexuality.
In my opinion it is the attitudes of football fans that separates football from more tolerant or accepting sports such as rugby and cricket, that prevents footballers from ‘coming out’, particularly whilst they’re still playing in a professional capacity. I struggle to believe, that in 21st century society, football fans are more prejudiced against gay people than the rest of the UK’s population. Quickly reading through the thousands of messages of support on Robbie Rogers’ twitter feed certainly suggests this, where football fans, mainly men seem to suggest they have nothing but admiration for Robbie’s bravery.
But the attitudes of someone going about their day to day life aren’t necessarily the attitude they demonstrate from the football stands. Terrace culture, rightly or wrongly is about defining yourself against your opposition. To define yourself or your team is also about defining who you aren’t, and this is done in a much more vociferous, fierce way than I have ever experienced whilst watching other sports.
Unlike in cricket and rugby, where opposition supporters are freely allowed to mingle within the ground, rival supporters are segregated in football for the fear of violence. This hatred manifests itself in the form of terrace ‘banter’, exploiting any perceived weaknesses in the opposition, in the attempt to gain an advantage for your team, be it accusing the opposition manager of being a paedophile, or the oppositions full back’s ex-wife of having a threesome with Diouf and Vaney. While in no way am I attempting to pass off homophobia as ‘banter’, terrace attitudes still prevail.
Furthermore, a more compelling case emerges when you compare the demographics of your average football fan compared to that of other sports – a largely masculine, working class environment, bringing with it masculine, beer-fuelled working class ideologies and attitudes. Here the game’s institutionally overflowing levels of testosterone dictate that homosexuals have no right to feel as if they belong in a football stadium, as they do in normal society. Is it any wonder that homosexual footballers fear the reaction from the stands?
Will this ever change?
A report released in 2012 by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee found that 25% of football fans think homophobia is rife in football whilst 10% believed football is racist. Yet, football authorities are still being criticised, namely by anti-homophobic groups, for preferring to focus all their efforts and resources on tackling racism.
While the FA, clubs and fans all need to unite in ‘stamping out homophobia’ in the same way we have seen racism tackled in recent decades. I still firmly believe football is in need of a high profile star, willing to come out as gay and stand up for what they believe in – whilst not being a high profile player in the UK, perhaps had Robbie Rogers not taken the decision to retire, he could have set the precedent for others to no longer hide their sexuality and shown that over time, with work, homosexual’s will be accepted in football.
Follow Leah on twitter.