Soccer world, meet Jason Collins. On April 29 2013, the 34-year old professional basketball player became the first openly gay active athlete in the four major sports in the United States. Collins took the leap by writing his own article in Sports Illustrated, giving him a chance to tell his story. He was overwhelmed with support from fans, celebrities and professionals alike with only a few negative comments appearing. Consensus seems to be that (even though that it does not really work like this) this could not have happened to a “better” person.
Even before he came out, Collins was lauded by coaches and players as a fantastic professional who played for the benefit of the team. His aggressive and physical style was often deployed as a defensive specialist for other physically dominant players. Collins has paved the way for other athletes in American sports. But what about across the pond in the Premier League?
A survey in 2010 suggested that 5% of the UK population is gay, lesbian or bisexual (LGB). If figures from the London Olympics are to be believed, only 0.17% of athletes are “openly gay.” Out of 12,602 athletes, 21 were openly gay with 18 of these being women. This figure is likely to be some way off the mark as this only took into account publicly open homosexuals. Similarly, gay dating application Grindr crashed within hours of the athletes arriving in London, which cannot be considered a coincidence. The homosexuality rate in sports at the elite level has been considered to be different to that of the general public, with female homosexuality increasing and male homosexuality decreasing, so while it may not be as high as 5%, I refute any claims that it would be as low at 0.17%. Conservatively settling on 2% could be seen as rational.
If we assume that each Premier League club has approximately 50 players contracted through the first team, reserves and youth team, then an estimate of 1,000 professional footballers would be reasonable. If 2% were gay then this would suggest that there are 20 gay footballers in the Premier League. There have been a few assumptions but one in every 50 does not appear to be in the realms of possibility. Max Clifford, PR advisor, claims to have at had at least two high-profile football clients come to him about being homosexual/bisexual although he advised them not to make it public and he believed that it would had a negative impact on their career.
Is the Premier League ready for an openly gay footballer? There has been a precedent set with Justin Fashanu coming out in 1990 but he struggled with the backlash he received. Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 after allegations of sexual assault pushed him to the brink. So, 23 years later, would there be the same sort of backlash?
The recent articles about gay footballers from Max Clifford, Anders Lindegaard, Gareth Southgate and The Guardian’s Secret Footballer allude to the fans attitude being the problem and this is what is inhibiting the first player from taking that giant leap forward.
Would the sexual orientation of a footballer be a target? Hands up who has heard homophobic language being used at a football match? I know I have and I am still disappointed with myself for not pulling up a fellow supporter and telling him that it was not acceptable.
Personally, I believe that it would depend on the player and the club he plays for. I think the bigger the player and club, then the more venom he could attract. The exception could be that if the player was a veteran who was widely respected by opposition fans. However there are not that many. Max Clifford thought along similar lines when he thought that if a player was going to “come out” then: “[Max] would envisage they’d be a hard man, with an established reputation, and perhaps a year or two at most left in the game, so if coming out brought too much hardship, it wouldn’t matter so much professionally”.
If ‘player x’ was a defender and he made a mistake, scored an own goal, would some of his fans turn on him? If he was a midfielder who went into a 50-50 tackle in a big match but pulled out last second would he be targeted from both sets of fans? How about a striker who took a tumble in the box, getting the defender sent-off and receiving a penalty would the opposition fans go to town on him? Whether these fans are homophobic in their everyday lives or not, the passion we have for our teams makes us irrational in what we say and do.
Up to now a lot of focus has been put on how the fans would react, but what about the players? Are they going to feel uncomfortable being naked around a gay player, sharing a dressing room or being associated with them for fear of assumption? Does mindless banter between players and friends all of a sudden become off limits to them?
What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room, and unlike American sports journalism the media does not get a look inside as much. The Guardian’s Secret Footballer does not seem to think that a player would have much of a problem with coming out to his team-mates, and neither does Max Clifford who said that: “There are gay players in the top division in English football, and some of them are out to their clubs and team-mates and nobody gives a jot.” And for that matter, neither does Anders Lindegaard who wrote in a blog post, “My impression is that the players would not have a problem accepting a homosexual”.
Having said that, there have been some recent cases of players tweeting homophobic messages — Federico Macheda, Ravel Morrison and Nile Ranger being amongst the culprits.
From what we can see, the dressing room may not be a problem as tolerance for individual difference seems to be there and those who do have a problem will soon learn to deal with it or go elsewhere.
Attitude of fellow professionals and fans are two sides to the story but there is a third and rarely thought about side – the commercial side. So the clubs want the attention? How about the stereotypical supporters as a whole, and how they consume the game? More often than not now, there is a Sky Sports and ESPN subscription from fans to watch the games, but if they feel like “his” game is being taken over, the masculinity on the sport compromised then will the revenue continue to flow? Modern day football is about money.
The other side to this is that sponsors may want their name associated with an openly gay footballer as the media attention would be great exposure for them and the individual could be offered a lot of money to tell his story, front campaigns etc.
Is the Premier League ready for an openly gay player? Is the player ready for the potential storm that could be opened upon him? Could fans be able to put their difference aside and not target his personal life? I am not so sure. But whoever takes the bold leap, whoever they play for, I will support and respect them. I don’t expect other fans to do the same. Just like some find it now acceptable to racially abuse via Twitter, some will do the same for homophobic abuse.
When Anders Lindegaard said that the game is in need of a “gay hero,” he was absolutely correct. That first Premier League person needs to be seen as a hero and we the fans need to give him that status and let it be known that any gay footballers need not hide, can be open and not feel like they will be abused. We can make it happen.