Gay footballers: The obsession is suffocating

Date published: Thursday 20th October 2016 2:20

On Tuesday, FA Chairman Greg Clarke became the latest in a long line of football talking heads to express his sadness at the game’s lack of gay (or bisexual) role models.

“I know what it is [the reason they don’t come out],” Clarke said. “Before we encourage people to do that we must create the safe space where they can expect to be respected, and not be abused.”

Clarke’s intentions were surely honourable, but it is hard not to wince when reading that paragraph, steeped in accidental height-and-might.

Yes, he really did say “before we encourage”: ‘Sorry, the head of our national football governing body couldn’t possibly encourage you to express your sexuality now. Not until we’ve banged a few heads together. We’ll give you the nod.’ Imagine telling black players that the best way to avoid being racially abused in Eastern Europe was to stay at home until attitudes have changed.

Clarke stands in a long queue of straight men talking about an issue on which they are at best half-educated. Chris Sutton said in response to Clarke that “there has never been a better time for a player to come out as gay”, but who the hell are we to tell a footballer what is the optimum time to expose himself to the notoriety?

In December 2012, Martin Samuel unforgettably urged (straight) Joey Barton to be ‘football’s gay hero’, as if sexuality were a daring fashion accessory to be picked for that ‘wow’ interview.

If calling this the ‘search for the first gay footballer’ sounds a little strong, there are reasons to be so candid. It feels like certain people in the game are desperate to pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant. Straightsplaining is rabid.

On this issue, former NBA player John Amaechi, who became the first player to come out, nails it: “If it’s more compelling for people to imagine that a magical person will turn up and everything will magically change – well, they can have that belief. The thing is, that’s not how change happens. The FA need to have a sense of urgency, to build a guiding team of powerful figures to do something beyond ‘being nice’ to gay people.”

In 2016, there is realistic hope that no player would be subject to outright discrimination within a club. ‘Banter’ has becoming an unpalatable facade for shameful actions and words, but homophobia has reduced across all strata of English society. Aiming for a Utopian landscape where abuse is nonexistent before anyone is encouraged to reveal their sexuality is as foolish as telling foreigners to stay away from English football because we have a problem with racism.

Abuse will never be entirely eradicated. Get groups of largely male, largely white people together and a minority will act like morons; true in football, true in life. Any player that did come out would be subject to abuse by opposition fans, but a minority would hopefully be quelled by the decent majority.

What Clarke, Sutton, Samuel and many others fail to realise is that the media (and, as a result, public) obsession with ‘gay footballers’ is now almost as harmful as the hatred. While hatred decreases over time, the fervour to have a gay role model increases. The graphs are moving in different directions.

In May 2013, the Observer revealed that Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, had been told by eight players that they were gay. ‘Seven told him that the reason they would not reveal their sexual orientation publicly was not the reaction from the dressing room or club, but the potential reaction from supporters and the media,’ the Guardian story read. Chris Basiurski, chair of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network, expressed his concern on the topic of supporters, but the media angle was not pursued (by the media).

The word ‘media’ in that last paragraph actually refers to many different stakeholders in the game, including but not exclusively newspapers, websites and broadcasters. The country’s obsession with the identification of gay footballers (and sportspeople in general) is rife. Go to Google (when not signed in, which may affect results) and type ‘Which footballers’ and just look at the top  autocomplete suggestion: ‘…are gay’.

It’s hard not to pin the blame on a growing gossip culture that has fuelled an addiction to reality TV and clicky web content. Footballers, pushed by agents and clubs all too aware of the financial incentive to become a ‘brand’, are increasingly sharing aspects of their personal lives. Alexis Sanchez’s dogs, John Terry’s lounge, everybody’s girlfriend, wife or both. The blurring of the lines between professional and personal lives only increases the demand to see further behind the curtain. Giving people a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Suddenly, everyone and everything is fair game. We can be rightly worried that the first gay footballer would be subject to terrace abuse, but the media reaction can also be predicted. The attention would be such that the first gay footballer could talk about nothing else for years. The first gay footballer would become a figurehead for equality (whether he wanted it or not), while the first gay footballer’s love life would be picked apart by the more salubrious parts of our tabloid media.

That previous paragraph deliberately points out an issue. Just like Trevor Francis and his ‘first £1 million player’ tag, he would no longer be a footballer but the ‘first gay footballer’, the final blurring of those professional/personal lines in which your sexuality becomes a prefix of your name.

Imagine how suffocating it would be to become such a fairground media attraction. The potentially inspirational effect could soon become outweighed by the noise. Why wouldn’t ‘Who is the first…’ simply become ‘Who is the next…’? Is the hunt ever really sated?

Greg Clarke is right that football still requires a safe space, but not from abuse (there is zero chance of that being completely eradicated, the fight just goes on to make it less and less acceptable) but from the media attention. And that could potentially be controlled.

Unfortunately, it would mean everybody working on the side of what is right rather than seeing one man’s sexuality as a campaign or a click. Until that happens, the closet probably feels a much cosier place, closing the door to avoid the straightsplaining.

The realistic future is that, at some point, someone will decide that they have had enough. They will say ‘sod this, I want people to know who I am’ and they will run the gauntlet of potential abuse and media intrusion. Just please don’t let that be cause for self-congratulation. And please don’t click on the link saying ‘ten teammates the first gay footballer probably fancies’. I wish I was more than half-joking

Daniel Storey

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