The last taboo in football?

There are half a million professional footballers in the world. None of them are gay, at least, not openly so. England wicketkeeper Steven Davies has made headlines in the last couple of days by becoming the first English cricketer to announce his homosexuality during his career but he is by no means the only elite British athlete to do so. Take Gareth Thomas, the most capped male Welsh rugby union international of all time, as an example.

Thomas admitted he was gay just over a year ago and despite having suppressed his sexuality for many years, the 36-year-old admits to feeling ‘liberated’ by coming out and it appears players and officials within the game seem to have gained even more respect for him. So if young Davies feels confident enough to come out and, alongside Thomas, can do it without huge public outcry, then why is homosexuality still a taboo for professional footballers?

If you listen to the FA, they will tell you that those Neanderthal football fans are not ready for something as scandalous as a few players admitting to their homosexuality. According to Ellis Cashmore, Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University and his research partner, Dr. Jamie Cleland, a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at the same institution, this stance is no more than a cop-out.

Cashmore suggests: “I think the FA’s approach is quite lazy. The easiest thing they can do to allow them to continually ignore this issue is to blame the fans. It is widely accepted that the fans generally create a hostile, homophobic culture which is highly prohibitive and the players are fearful of their reaction. Our research reveals something entirely different though.”

Cleland adds: “93% of the three and a half thousand fans we sampled think that there is no place for homophobia within football. This goes against the football authorities’ view of football supporters. It appears that there is a very liberal and permissive culture and our results suggest that it is time that the powers that be look at alternative means to challenge this particular process.”

Cashmore and Cleland surveyed over 3,000 fans online – at www.topfan.co.uk – deciding that this was the best method of achieving accurate results for their research. Cleland says: “If you survey someone on the way to a match when they are with their contemporaries, they might not answer truthfully for fear of losing face in front of their mates. In academic research, you are always searching for the truth and the best way to do that, as obvious as it sounds is to take away the incentive to lie. By conducting the survey anonymously online, we have managed to do that. The conditions we set and the size of the sample we took makes our research stand up to scrutiny and makes the results all the more significant.”

So if academic research suggests that the fans are okay with gay players, then why are players still so reluctant to come out? “I think that there are two main factors inhibiting players from coming out,” says Cashmore. “Firstly, they are assigned to football clubs, conservative institutions wary of the consequences of being the first club to have a gay player or players. They are concerned that it could result in damage to their brand, and obviously clubs are very concerned about that as it would affect their annual turnover.”

“The other determining factor I think is agents. Agents make up to 10% commission off of a player’s overall earnings, across the board. If a player comes out then his agent cannot guarantee that he will make the same earnings form endorsement contracts and such. It takes the element of control away from the agent and they will be immediately aware that it could affect their own earnings so they will advise the player to keep quiet.”

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Justin Fashanu, who of course took his own life in 1998, is the only football player up to ever have come out up until now. There can be no doubt that the circumstances surrounding his life and eventual death has contributed to football being somewhat left in the dark ages when it comes to the accepting gay players.

Cashmore, though, contends: “You have to remember that was back in the 1990’s and football has moved on a lot since then. We have become much more liberal and open-minded in our attitude towards gay men and women people since then and the world of sport as a whole has moved on. Many major sports now have had gay competitors who have come out quite openly and without fear or favour. Nobody has really batted an eyelid.”

“With Gareth Thomas for example, he was expecting a torrid time but with the exception of one incident at Castleford, which he was able to laugh off, he has not had any problems. I think the image of football is different but the culture and the environment is no different to other sports. This representation of the game is perpetuated by figures like Max Clifford, who described the game as recently as a year ago as ‘steeped in homophobia’ and that is not helpful. It leaves the culture of football stuck in the dark ages and that does not do anyone any favours. It just serves to perpetuate this misleading idea that football is still medieval when it isn’t!”

Cashmore and Cleland both remain critical of the FA and initiatives such as the Kick It Out campaign, claiming that they will not work because they are targeted at eradicating homophobia within the fans, instead of within the game itself. “I don’t think any of the campaigns, and there are a few of them come even vaguely close to tackling the problem,” says Cashmore. “Simply because, they don’t know what they are tackling. They accept the orthodox opinion that there is homophobia within football fans and they are trying to combat that. The truth is that there isn’t. If they really want to tackle the insidious forms of homophobia, they need to go to the managers of the clubs, the directors, the agents who handle the players’ business contracts. In other words, get to the inaccessible areas. It’s very easy to blame fans, but I said before, that is just lazy and does not tackle the issue at all.”

“I don’t think any of these campaigns can work, because they are ill-considered and, in any case, when did football fans ever take notice of what the authorities think? They haven’t got a clue what they are doing. They are looking at the fans, which is woefully off target and, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing. Campaigns such as Kick It Out and Football Against Homophobia just don’t get it. I’d rather they didn’t have any campaigns at all as opposed to continually targeting the fans.”

Strong words from Cashmore, and despite or perhaps due to the FA’s apparent inertia, this is an issue that will continue to crop up until the first gay footballer decides to out himself. The progress made in the last 30 years on the issue of race and ethnicity should hopefully offer some encouragement that football will eventually drag itself into the 21st century.

To hear the full interview with Cleland and Cashmore, go to: The Football FanCast Interview Show podcast.

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