Time to address football’s biggest taboo

Robbie Rogers

Unfortunately, I believe Roy Hodgson’s tenure as England boss will always be sourly remembered, not for some rather inadequate results, but the disappointing, disgusting and embarrassing re-arrival of racism. Indeed, Hodgson’s appointment was off the back of a side story regarding the John Terry scandal, in which Fabio Capello refused to relinquish the Chelsea man of his England arm band.

Ever since, the legacy of the in-camp split, between Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole lives on, with England fans still divided over whom should and should not be included in the Three Lions set up, and reportedly resorting to derogatory chants with racial connotations to attack the Ferdinand brothers, leading the FARE organisation to report England fans to UEFA following their recent World Cup Qualifier against Motenegro.

Yet, while one form of discrimination is beginning to finally be confronted, from protests from senior Black players in the Premier League boycotting the rather limp in effect Kick It Out t-shirt campaign, to Sepp Blatter holding a meeting with Kevin Prince-Boateng and reversing his original stance of “everything in football can be settled with a handshake”, an equally as vile, atrocious and institutional type of prejudice is still being widely ignored and swept under the rug by football’s governing bodies.

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Of course, I am talking about the ultimate footballing taboo – homosexuality – and the structural and entrenched homophobia that has made it such an unthinkable and rarely discussed subject. According to the 2011 UK census, 6% of citizens did not categorise themselves as straight, either being homosexual, bisexual or undecided, yet in the history of World football, there have been just a handful of sportsmen who have come out as gay, such as Justin Fashanu, Anton Hysen and Robbie Rogers.

The statistics simply don’t add up, considering there are at least 500 senior players in the Premier League alone (as there are 20 squads of 25  registered players), not to mention the development squads and academy teams, yet there is not a single homosexual footballer in the top flight, or for that matter, there is not a single Premier League footballer who would describe their sexuality in any manner other than ‘straight’. It’s clear that the problem is cultural and structural; else it would not be so widespread.

English football once had the opportunity to change itself for the better. The tragic story of Justin Fashanu is well known; a £1million footballer, reduced to nothing, and through constant heckling and abuse from fans and the British media, pushed to suicide as a price for his openness and honesty. Had the public embraced Fashanu, or at least accepted him, players today would not quite simply be scared into appearing as straight.

You get the feeling agents, family members and friends urge gay players not to reveal themselves, for fear of suffering the same fate as the former Nottingham Forrest striker. Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds and USA winger, is the most recent footballer to come out. Yet, it was not until his career was over, plighted by injury, that he finally told the truth regarding his sexuality, safe from the training ground, the football pitch and the terraces.

So why is it that there is such an issue with homosexuality? What is the source of homophobia in the English game? And can we ever truly address it in the same way racism is being addressed?

West Ham’s Matt Jarvis recently sparked controversy by posing topless for gay magazine, Attitude, in an effort to bring forward the subject of homosexuality in football. He insists that although some of his team-mates started acting bizarrely towards him, even quizzing his wife about his sexuality, he was in no way discriminated against by the rest of the squad. Although there was some polite banter, mocking Jarvis as a poser more than anything else, there was nothing untoward.

The once capped England man believes the problems lie on the terraces rather than within the clubs, and the fact that ‘Matt Jarvis gay’ is the second highest available automated search on Google upon typing in the Hammers winger’s name, a place higher than ‘Matt Jarvis Attitude’, only highlights the widespread ignorance towards the issue, and how ineffective the campaign has been.

Joey Barton however has a different view of things. The former Manchester City midfielder may have a negative reputation for some of his actions on and off the pitch, but he is one of the most intelligent and well-read footballers to have graced the Premier League. According to Barton, it is individuals, mainly coaches, managers and other footballers that hold back progress: “Individuals within the game will discriminate against people. These archaic figures think if they had a gay footballer, they would have all kinds of shenanigans going on in the dressing room. That’s not the case. As I say it’s more fool them and their lack of social awareness and intelligence.”

Barton has been so outspoken over the issue after witnessing the difficulties of his gay uncle in a working class environment, yet the Marseille midfielder was eager and determined to defend his own sexuality upon a Daily Mail article suggesting he himself should come out as homosexual, as a beacon of hope for other footballers, by threatening to sue the British newspaper.

Every step in the right direction is soon stalled. Although every player, coach, manager and governing official will openly speak out against homophobic prejudice, they would still readily distance themselves from any inclination regarding their own sexuality.

Part of the problem is the nature of football itself, or rather the nature of the supporters. Although football is simply 22 men on a football pitch, when put into social context it becomes a war of identity. Within that identity, masculinity is incredibly important. I’m sure I’m not the only football fan who has heard wolf whistles when players bend over to tie their laces, chants of “she fell over”, or songs claiming rival fans are in one way or another sexual deviants, and it’s all aimed at challenging an opponent’s masculinity, either on the pitch or on the terraces.

The notion of masculinity is so entrenched through the working class roots of the English fan base, and is further translated to the players through the physical requirements of the game itself. To weaken the masculine identity of an opposing player or fan is seen as an opportunity to gain a psychological advantage, which is exactly why having a gay player at a club is seen as an immediate danger to his team-mates, and most importantly his own fans, as their masculine identity is collectively tied, and homosexuality comes with assumptions of weakness, sexual peculiarity and effeminacy.

Yet, to keep up the comparison of war, the British army have accepted homosexual and bisexual soldiers as a policy since 2000. We accept gay people working in our government, to have the right to marrage and to raise children, and allow them to risk their lives fighting for our country, yet there is an entrenched determination to forbid them to represent our communities and our football clubs, out of fear of our own shortcomings and inferiorities.

Just as with any form of discrimination, homophobia is based on insecurity. I would argue that football’s governing bodies must undertake serious institutional change, in the same manner as it is attempted to with racism, but I fear the efforts will fall on deaf ears, and any improvements will at most be superficial.

It has been 15 years since the death of Justin Fashanu, and yet, it seems in that time that very little has been learned. Change will not occur until one player makes it so; one of the world’s best to come out of the closet, and prove that sexuality makes no difference to who you are, whom you represent or how good you are at football.

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