In a previous job I worked with lots of young lads in their early 20s, many of whom had been on the books with professional clubs as teenagers, a couple of whom even made senior matchday squads in the Football League and still played semi-professionally. In other words, it was as close to the makeup of a mostly-English football club’s dressing room as you could possibly get without actually being in one.
The atmosphere at the place was acrid. On good days, there was a culture of anti-intellectualism and mockery of anything outside the straight and narrow. At worst, there would be awful misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments flying around all day, masquerading as jokes and banter.
Occasionally a woman would join the company, always leaving after just a few months because of the complete lack of basic human decency afforded to them by their colleagues. They were openly treated worse and given less room for error than their male colleagues – all the stuff that every woman experiences at some point but which we men refuse to believe until we see it in person, myself included. It was horrible to watch.
Yet if you made a road trip with any of these lads on their own, they were lovely guys, and every single one of them at one stage or another told me that the ‘banter’ that they had themselves engaged in made them uncomfortable. It became clear that every one of them was doing it because that was how things were done. They thought that was everyone else’s sense of humour, they thought everyone else found it funny, so they went along with it rather than sit silently and sullenly in the corner of the room.
It would be an oversimplification to say that all it needed was for someone to stand up in the middle of those hate-filled verbal volleys and say ‘Lads, what are we doing? Do any of you really think this is funny or are you all just showing off?’, because there was enough genuine hate there from one or two people for that not to work. But mostly the problem was just flat out ignorance and cowardice – a word I don’t use as a value judgement against anyone individually, but which is absolutely the right word for it. So you just stay silent.
The problem with that kind of ignorance is that it’s entirely self-perpetuating. Staff turnover at this place was high, because the culture drove out every half-decent person who could afford to go without a job for a couple of months. Naturally, this left behind only the worst offenders, so when replacements were brought in the cycle would begin anew, only worse, because now the damp squib was out of the room and there was nobody left to call them out.
This is exactly the experience many footballers have spoken about. In ‘Why England Lose’, Simon Kuper relates the account of a trainee at Oldham who was endlessly mocked for reading the Daily Mail because that was seen as being too middle-class. Tottenham’s Erik Thorstvedt received similar treatment for reading a broadsheet on the team bus in the 1990s, around the same time that Graeme Le Saux received homophobic abuse both from the stands and from his teammates at least in part because he read the Guardian.
Separate, unrelated incidents heralding mockery and abuse because of someone’s choice of newspaper. Imagine seeing that, being in that kind of relentlessly mocking environment, and then think about whether you’d feel comfortable coming out as gay or bisexual, or were struggling with mental health issues?
In the case of coming out, often the best thing you can hear is that nobody around you cares either way. With depression, just talking to someone, or knowing that you could, is often enough to get you on the road to recovery.
I have been lucky enough to find myself with a supportive family, a wonderful group of friends, and a dazzlingly intelligent, patient and understanding wife, while my current full-time employer are impeccably progressive and welcoming. But despite having the best possible support network and a relatively cushy middle-class life, my own struggles with sexuality and depression have left me feeling isolated and suicidal on more than one occasion: When I was 17, when I was 20, and most recently, just last year.
Obviously I have come through it and, by and large, every day is better than the last, but it was touch and go for a while. I cannot express enough how important those things are, or how utterly all-consuming and hopeless things are before you reach the point of opening up to someone.
For me, I couldn’t think straight, I would find myself paralysed and trembling by simple decisions like which cereal to buy. Even the most basic interactions, like flatly saying ‘good morning’ to someone, become impossible. Those three things, taken together, means every second of every day is a waking nightmare.
I cannot fathom how impossible it would have been to feel not only like you couldn’t talk to someone, but that you would be openly mocked and castigated for doing so. If I had been at my previous job when my last mental health crisis occurred, I seriously doubt I would still be here. It’s a really, really terrifying thought and it chills me to write it.
So is it any wonder that Leeds United’s Robbie Rogers retired immediately upon announcing he was gay, or that Thomas Hitzlsperger waited until after retirement to do so? In such an emotionally immature atmosphere, is it at all surprising that a bright Rio Ferdinand admitted it was only after the death of his wife Rebecca that he truly understood that suicide is not the act of a contemptible coward?
This is not a small issue. I don’t know the details of any specific case so I won’t name names, but I can think of half a dozen footballers right off the top of my head who have reached the point of suicide over the past 20 or so years, several of them tragically following through with it.
As a society we are getting incrementally better at dealing with these things, but football’s laddish culture needs to catch up, grow up, and think about the possible consequences mocking ‘banter’ can have. Lives depend upon it.