Who cares about gay footballers?
One GT reader asks: is it time to end the obsession with gay footballers?
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In this month's GT, we feature Thomas Hitzlsperger - the first footballer to have played in the premiership to come out in two decades. Why, in 2014, is football still so dogged by homophobia? Peter Tatchell and Dan Tickner offer up their own views. Now blogger Joe Haining gives his take:
‘Out and still playing: At last, a gay footballer speaks’. This was the headline that The Independent chose for their January article profiling Liam Davis, the Gainsborough Trinity footballer who is currently the only openly gay player in the UK. For the mainstream media it was something of a non-story during their quest to find a gay star. Davis plays in the semi-professional sixth level of English football where only three teams out of 44 regularly attract more than 1,000 fans to games. In addition, Davis had already been out for some time, and the story initially surfaced somewhat under the radar in his local paper in the days following the more public announcement by retired German international Thomas Hitzlsperger.
That there is still not a single openly gay player at the top level of the game can largely be attributed to the intense media spotlight that shines on the sport. Since the advent of 24-hour sports news, footballers have achieved a level of celebrity previously the preserve of the Hollywood elite. In this cauldron of hype and hyperbole where even the most innocuous comments can be blown up out of all proportion, it is likely that any gay players at the highest level feel coming out simply is not worth the hounding they would be subjected to from a sports media with too many column inches and hours of airtime to fill.
Not that the media would accept that blame. Ian Herbert, author of the Davis piece in The Independent, wrote: “Though there is a belief among professionals that there will be a positive dressing room reaction to any player who comes out, it is the [fans] which present the potential problem.” Davis himself, however, acknowledges that a variety of factors are preventing top professionals from coming out, telling BBC Sport: "There are lots of things to consider – the media, agents, tens of thousands of opposition fans.” Is it significant that the media were the first thing that came to mind?
When American international Robbie Rogers visited the UK last year to launch the anti-discrimination initiative Beyond IT!, The Mirror focussed on the fact that no gay players had contacted Rogers during his promotion drive. Whether this was intended to suggest that there are no gay players or that they are so shy that they won’t even speak to each other is unclear. But we have seen stirring of this particular pot in the past, notably when the publicist Max Clifford revealed that several gay players had approached him about coming out and that he had advised them against it, claiming it would end their careers. Either Max is just a big old tease, telling tall tales, or those guys sadly took his advice and have stuck to it.
There was another footballing coming out recently: the England women’s captain, Casey Stoney. Again, not the high-profile story Fleet Street was hoping for. Women in sport, according to commentators such as Julie Bindel suffer from even more prejudice from the male-dominated sports media, with sexism a major problem as well. A stereotype persists that women who want to be sportspeople must be lesbians. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova said: “There is a kind of reverse homophobia with women because they have to almost prove they are straight.” Stoney admitted that her sexuality had been well known and accepted within the sport for a long time, but that she had been afraid to reveal it outside for fear of negative reaction. Given that it’s not that long since The Sun described the world’s no.1 male player Cristiano Ronaldo as a “nancy boy”, it’s no wonder.
Many players have expressed publicly that a gay team mate would be welcome in the dressing room. Research has shown that most fans are not homophobic and don’t care about the sexuality of their heroes, while those who do now are rapidly being marginalised by tougher legislation and campaigns such as Football v Homophobia. So who does this leave to blame for the lack of openly gay football stars? Those governing the sport must consider whether they are doing enough to ensure the conditions in which a player can feel comfortable coming out, but the mainstream media also need to consider their part. We are still seeing terms like “Holy Grail” being used in relation to this elusive outing; this is far from helpful. They would do well to remember that their job should be to just report the news.
Words: Joe Haining / @jobi1k
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of GT or its affiliates.
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