Football needs to deal with Justin Fashanu or stop twisting his myth

An Idol. An inspiration. A Hero. A Trailblazer. A Martyr. These types of words are banded around frequently and liberally for all manner of people these days (except perhaps martyr, which does come with the relatively sturdy and mandatory requirement of death) be they entertainment celebrities, sportsmen or charismatic if ultimately ideologically barren politicians. These are words we’re all too familiar with and mostly for the wrong reasons. They are also all words that are seldom if ever used to describe the one and only top-flight footballer – in the world – to come out as gay, Justin Fashanu.

Don’t get me wrong, Fashanu was not necessarily any of these things (though he’s surely as close to a martyr as football will ever get, even if football didn’t play a direct role in his death – a myth that still perseveres today, acting as a scare story to any would be closeted players and fans.) He was – like us all – a flawed individual. Notoriously difficult to work with, with a reputation for being aggressive and opinionated on the training field and often courted the media gratuitously in that age-old celebrity duality of being both the user and the used by the tabloid press. As a footballer he ultimately failed to live up to his early billing as the first million pound black player and flopped on his first and only move to a big club. He died tragically amidst lurid allegations, a year after retiring after a journeyman career in Scotland and the US. But despite all this, his status as a trailblazer, a genuine original and an eventually bullish and motivated combatant for social progress and tolerance on two fronts – the burden and brunt of which he seemed to bare all alone – is rarely appreciated in the wider circle of public life in the way many other more trivial cases are.

It’s all too natural to lionize people after the fact, to romanticize the tragic as saintly figures and throw generous hagiography the way of anyone who’s ever performed a kind or valiant gesture in the public eye. Yet this man, for all this flaws and sadly still vain sacrifice, was a true pioneer and is still brushed under the carpet and kept out of the spotlight like an embarrassing relative when polite company calls.

Ever since that Cricketer who wasn’t actually that Snooker player came out I’ve been trying to write an article on Fashanu. The man has always struck me as a fascinating figure, and the fact that so little is known about him by so many of my age group (mid-20s) beyond his death and sexuality only added to the mystery. Unfortunately I’ve been suffering from crippling writers block, a condition, nay disease as obviously serious and important as sex addiction or compulsive eating but which never the less allowed me the time to research the subject in a more expansive way than I would’ve if I’d just knocked this up of an afternoon.

During this period of research two things struck me most prominently. Firstly, that the reaction of those closest to him was every bit as archaic and patently damaging emotionally than even the oft exaggerated passage of time had insinuated. Specifically his agent Eric Hall  – who still believes there are no gay footballers – and even more strikingly his brother, the elbow mad Gladiator baiter John. John Fashanu came out after his brother’s death and expressed sadness and the belief he was at least in heaven, but had spent the aftermath of his outing relaying to the media his overt disapproval. Brian Clough, who became aware of Justin’s homosexuality long before his outing and during his stint as the worlds most expensive black footballer, expressed deep regret for his treatment of him, something it seems hard to imagine a man like Cloughie – never one to mea culpa if he didn’t have to – would admit to lightly or without significance. He certainly never apologized for punching his own players or even, on occasion, his own fans, but for this he did. That alone must lend a deal of significance to the level of treatment Justin endured during what was supposed to be the peak of his career. A career in which – it should be remembered – he was a very promising and talented player.

The other thing that stood out, and which runs almost at a contrast to the point above, is how much of his footballing persecution is mythically tied to his death. One of the most tragic things about Fashanu’s story is how it’s still used today as a scarecrow for gay players. It’s a cautionary tale, and is remembered as such by many of my age. “Don’t come out or you’ll end up like Fash.” Fashanu’s outing certainly caused the well of clubs after his signature to dry up, but he still played on for seven more years. He was even briefly made assistant manager at Torquay in 1992. He was certainly a pariah, but he wasn’t a total outcast and his death was as much the result of his personal rejections and tribulations – including his struggle with religion – as it was his professional. His suicide note told of his sadness at being presumed guilty of sexual assault in America and the embarrassment it would bring his family. A belief made all the more tragic as his guilt hadn’t been assumed, and the charge was never followed up on and had already been dropped.

And yet football continues to treat Fashanu as both it’s cautionary tale and it’s embarrassing secret. Both of which serve no purpose but to dissuade any future outings. When it suits football, it’s football’s fault, and serves as a terrifying reminder to those who wish to follow suit. When it doesn’t, it’s not, and is simply not their problem, or any reason to address it. But it’s both, and it’s all. If football wants to ignore it’s role in his decline then it can’t continue to propagate the lie that no one can survive the process, or as Max Clifford claimed in 2009 that it would “end their career in two minutes.” Paradoxically if football wants to acknowledge it’s role, then it should hold Fashanu up in a better light for fighting against it, and if he was remembered as a less tragic and more heroic figure then his legend might serve as an inspiration rather than a curse.

This was a man who came out at the end of the 80s, whilst a black footballer in still a relatively (compared to today) hostile racial football environment, whose family abandoned him, profession forsook him, and religion condemned him, each to some degree. Who still took to the pitch to play for seven more years, went on talk shows and eloquented his trials and tribulations and argued his points incredibly well for a footballer, and ploughed on strongly, and seemingly alone in the world until the burden evidently became too much.

It’s very easy for those who wish to ignore it to say “it doesn’t matter he was gay, why should we care” or other such Daily Mail comments page type wafflings seemingly designed to ignore the issue or remove it from the public consciousness  with a disingenuous display of egalitarianism. It does matter, because social progress depends on people like Fashanu. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, and to ignore that is to ignore the reality of the world we live in. Only through proliferation does acceptance grow. It mattered that America had it’s first black President. It mattered that the UK had it’s first female Prime Minister and it mattered that the world had it’s first gay footballer.

When Gareth Thomas can be admired so readily for his coming out in socially progressive 2010, why this man, who was both far more brave, far ahead of his time and far more alone, not remembered as a similar icon, or hero, or some other kind of lionized figure that he seems – in my young mind at least – to deserve? Where Fashanu failed he suffered for it greatly but where football failed, it shrugged it’s shoulders. He was a beautiful and intelligent man who was failed by many, even himself, and although it wasn’t football alone that lead to his demise, it failed him too, and he should at least be remembered much better by it. At least for the sake of those who may wish to follow in his footsteps.

You can follow Oscar on Twitter here http://twitter.com/oscarpyejeary, where you can help him plot the guerilla invasion of ITV2’s OMG! – With Peaches Geldof. It must be stopped!