In 2015 the Office for National Statistics stated that 1.7% of the UK population identified as Lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) (“Sexual identity, UK- Office for National Statistics“, 2015). To put that into perspective; there are 65.1 million people living in the UK (Hayter, 2015), 1.1 million of which identify as LGB. The Premier League website lists 836 players who currently play in the Premier League (“Premier League Players – Overview and Stats“, 2017)… None of whom are openly gay.
Why is that?
According to Stonewall (“LGBT facts and figures“, n.d.), “Seven in 10 football fans who’ve attended a match have heard or witnessed homophobia on the terraces”. This is not only directed towards players, but also opposition supporters. On the 2nd of April 2013, the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GSFN) and Brighton and Hove Supporters Club (BHASC) submitted a report to the FA (“Brighton fans report homophobic abuse to FA“, 2013), stating that the supporters of Brighton and Hove Albion had suffered homophobic chants in 57% of their matches, including “does your boyfriend know you’re here” and “you’re just a town full of faggots”. While this kind of abuse is often hidden under the thin veil of ‘banter’, both the BHASC and the GSFN stated that “it wouldn’t be described as ‘banter’ if the taunts and chants were about skin colour and something would have been done by now to stop it.”
This kind of abuse is hard for some fans to stomach, let alone to an openly gay football player who has to deal with the pressure of the spotlight already. During an interview with FourFourTwo in 2011, then Fulham striker Bobby Zamora stated, “Football is a confidence game; when you’re scoring, you can do no wrong. When it’s the other way round, everything goes wrong.” (“Inside the mind of a striker“, 2011). We’ve heard managers speaking about player’s confidence before, and how badly their game can be affected without it. So what happens to confidence when a player is subject to homophobic abuse?
In 1990, Justin Fashanu came out openly to the press. He was the first black player to command a £1m transfer fee, when he joined Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side in 1981. Fashanu’s sexuality however wasn’t a secret to everyone during his career. After rumours emerged involving Fashanu visiting gay nightclubs and bars, Brian Clough banned him from training with the side and revealed in his biography he gave Fashanu a dressing down for the rumours (Clough, 1995), quote
“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”
While Fashanu continued playing football until 1997, the forward admitted to Gay Times Magazine in July 1991, that although fully fit no club had offered him a full-time contract since his story first appeared. He admitted that he wasn’t prepared for the backlash which followed and admitted his career had suffered “heavy damage” (Marshall, 1991). In 1998, Fashanu took his own life, aged 37.
If homophobia can have such a damaging effect on a player’s career and has been shown to come from both the fans and the player’s own dressing room, how can a player expect to receive support when coming out? Stonewall states,
“17 per cent of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people have experienced and 49 per cent have witnessed homophobia or transphobia in sport.“
An alarming statistic which you would have to be a part of, if you were to be open about your sexuality in the Premier League.
Since taking over as chairman of the FA in August last year, Greg Clarke says he’s been working to tackle homophobia in the sport since taking up the role. In January 2017 Greg Clarke spoke to 15 different LGBT Sportspeople in an effort to listen to their concerns and come up with proposals to support players who feel ready to be open about their sexual orientation (“The world of sport needs to support and respect LGBT players“, 2017). More recently Clarke spoke at Rainbow Laces Summit (“Greg Clarke: FA chairman says gay footballers ‘reticent to engage with me’“, 2017), stating
“Despite nine months of going round and seeing people from athletics, from cricket, from rugby and many other sports, I’ve yet to meet one professional footballer who felt comfortable enough to have a private meeting at a venue and time of their choosing,”
But is enough being done? According to Stonewall figures from 2009, half of all football fans do not feel the Football Association, Premier League and Football League are doing enough to tackle anti-gay abuse (Dick, 2009). Has much changed in the last 8 years?
After the Rainbow Lace summit, Clarke went into further detail when asked (“Greg Clarke says men’s football must do more for LGBT inclusivity”, 2017), stating
“We need to make sure we penalise bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, train people, work with people behind the scenes, make sure inclusion happens, make sure people who want to come out feel safe.“
But is bad behaviour being penalised? In the 14-15 Premier League season, 20 reports of homophobia were reported to the FA, one complaint more than the previous season which had 19. However after efforts by the GSFN and BHASC, the Football Association (2015) stated
“Unlike in previous seasons, there were no reports of mass chanting by opposing supporters at Brighton & Hove Albion matches. In 2014-15, The FA again worked with Brighton & Hove Albion FC and Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club (BHASC) and all clubs hosting a match against Brighton & Hove Albion to encourage liaison between the two football clubs in advance of the game, liaison between the home club and representatives of BHASC on the match day and the home club to do what it can to deal with any offensive chanting at the match. The BHASC compiles a report after each away match and the reports this last season have largely indicated an absence of any abusive chanting”
So should the clubs be doing more to support gay players? In November 2016 all 20 Premier League clubs showed support for Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign and used “#TeamPride” on social media (“Premier League supports Rainbow Laces”, 2016). Whilst this kind of support is great for inclusion, does it do enough by way of support to help gay Premier League players feel safe to come out? Greg Clarke told a Commons Select Committee in October 2016 that if a player in the Premier League were to come out, he may suffer “significant abuse”, before later stating that full inclusion was still “a couple of decades away”.
Why would it be important for a player to come out?
According to former Republic of Ireland International dressing rooms would not be mature enough to handle a gay player (Cascarino, 2017), stating
“Would a player mind if he found out a team-mate was gay? Probably. Players wouldn’t want to be left alone with him, they wouldn’t want to shower with him. Before you rush to criticise, would you find it acceptable for a man to walk around a women’s dressing-room? More importantly, team-mates would be self-conscious around the player. The sexual banter would develop an uncomfortable edge if it continued. It is an undesirable scenario for a manager, since an uneasy and divided squad is not a recipe for success. A gay player himself would probably feel equally ill-at-ease. Dressing-rooms are like perverted nudist camps. Immature, wild places, little self-contained states where the normal rules of common decency and acceptable behaviour do not apply. Sexual activity and bodily functions are props players use for pranks and banter.”
This kind of attitude and environment can make it hard for a player to come out, but only in having a player come out of the closet could a dressing room be given the opportunity to adapt and become inclusive of gay premier league footballers. Coming out is something difficult which the LGBT community do, not just the once, but every time they meet someone new. Society often presumes the “norm”, but through providing role models, often things outside the “norm” can become more widely accepted. Without a gay role model in the Premier League, young players who are in the closet may be deterred from coming out until it is more widely accepted. If Clarke is right in saying that that stage is “a couple of decades away” then a young gay player may have to wait over 20 years to retire before they can be themselves. As former Manchester United goalkeeper, Anders Lindegaard stated, “homosexuals are in need of a [footballing] hero” (Ogden, 2012).
But could football have already committed the biggest crime of all? Perhaps there are no openly gay Premier League footballers because there are no gay Premier League footballers. Stonewall have stated that “66 per cent of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people felt that there were problems with homophobia and transphobia in sport and that this acted as a barrier to LGBT people taking part.” If this is true, are we all guilty of putting young players off the sport for fear of the ridicule they may receive? Potentially, but if this is the case it shows why the sport must work harder for the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations. Like Clarke says, it may take decades, but we can all play our part to help with inclusion now by starting a dialogue and joining in with the conversation.
For Further Information, please visit:
Brighton fans report homophobic abuse to FA. (2013). BBC Sport. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/21988433
Cascarino, T. (2017). Boys being boys in the dressing room helps to keep homosexuality in football’s closet. Thetimes.co.uk. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/boys-being-boys-in-the-dressing-room-helps-to-keep-homosexuality-in-footballs-closet-nkrm9k62vwv
Clough, B. (1995). Clough: The Autobiography (1st ed., p. 319). Corgi Adult.
Dick, S. (2009). Leagues Behind (p.2). Stonewall. Retrieved from http://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/Leagues_Behind__2009_.pdf
Greg Clarke says men’s football must do more for LGBT inclusivity. (2017). Sky Sports. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/10879200/greg-clarke-says-mens-football-must-do-more-for-lgbt-inclusivity
Greg Clarke: FA chairman says gay footballers ‘reticent to engage with me’. (2017). BBC Sport. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/39929690
Hayter, C. (2015). Overview of the UK population- Office for National Statistics. Ons.gov.uk. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/overviewoftheukpopulation/mar2017
Inside the mind of a striker. (2011). FourFourTwo. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.fourfourtwo.com/performance/training/inside-mind-striker
LGBT facts and figures. Stonewall. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/lgbt-facts-and-figures
Marshall, J. (1991). Justin Fashanu: Soccer’s enigmatic gay star. Gay Times, (154).
Ogden, M. (2012). Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard says homosexual footballers ‘need a hero’ in the game. Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/9707164/Manchester-United-goalkeeper-Anders-Lindegaard-says-homosexual-footballers-need-a-hero-in-the-game.html
Premier League Players – Overview and Stats. (2017). Premierleague.com. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.premierleague.com/players
Premier League supports Rainbow Laces. (2016). Premierleague.com. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.premierleague.com/news/144134
Sexual identity, UK- Office for National Statistics. (2015). Ons.gov.uk. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/sexuality/bulletins/sexualidentityuk/2015
The Football Association. (2015). Tackling Discrimination (p. 26). The Football Association. Retrieved from http://www.thefa.com/~/media/files/pdf/respect/the-fa-reporting-statistics.ashx
The world of sport needs to support and respect LGBT players. (2017). Stonewall. Retrieved 17 May 2017, from http://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/media-statement/statement/world-sport-needs-support-and-respect-lgbt-players