Men are at the core of football’s biggest, strangest problem

John Nicholson
Josh Cavallo passes the ball

Attitudes to being gay have changed, but not completely. Josh Cavallo deserves credit for resisting football’s arrested development culture.


The Guardian reports that Australian A-League midfielder Josh Cavallo has ‘come out as gay,’ making the 21-year-old the only openly gay player in the world.

That it is still called ‘coming out’ reflects much. No-one comes out as heterosexual, do they? Yet for so many of us, being gay is just part of life. Whether it’s ourselves or our friends or colleagues, it is both natural and normal.

It most certainly was not always like this. If you look up Section 28 you may find it shocking how gay people were persecuted by the Conservative government until relatively recently – and they were not the only ones.

We know football has had a habit of inculcating arrested development in young men, keeping them forever sniggering, playing practical jokes and flicking each other with wet towels; forever aged 14. That may have changed significantly now as players become more active in social campaigning and clubs recognise that they have a duty of care towards their staff. Even so, there is a widespread belief that a gay footballer would get an enormous amount of grief, perhaps from players, but mostly from opposition fans.

Yet concurrent with that is the belief that, in the age of rainbow laces, he absolutely wouldn’t and that if he did, the vast majority would drown out the intolerant and bigoted bantersaurus, in the same way the booing of taking the knee has been supplanted by simple applause.

So we’re in a strange position where being gay is not an issue at all to the majority, but we can’t normalise this by just treating it exactly as we treat not being gay, because of fear of unproven but heavily suspected abuse.

Football is just one part of society and our sexuality doesn’t exist in isolation. If you feel under threat in your everyday life, you’re not going to feel secure about being open in football. And we live in a world where being a gay man can have serious, violent consequences.

Women’s football shows us the way. Several England players, for example, are in same-sex relationships. Is anyone in the slightest bit bothered? Of course not. It’s not an issue for players, fans, managers, anyone. Why would it be?

But men are different, it seems. And this is the core of the problem: men. While many players have spoken out positively about sexuality and are sure gay teammates would be embraced, the fact is, in this and in life more generally, men are a problem. We fear men. And rightly so. If anything violent is going to happen to us, it’ll almost always be men administering the violence. You’ve got to be careful. We are all right to be suspicious of men, and as men, for people to be suspicious of us.  We might feel we’re not the bad guy, but the bad guys don’t think they’re the bad guys either, as they beat the living shit out of us and murder us.

We fear the male reaction to gay men; we fear their reaction to us if we side with gay men. So everyone keeps quiet. And I suspect everyone will keep being quiet about it until we change men. But is that even possible? Won’t there always be a minority who will persecute, in one way or another, gay men, especially if they play for the opposition?

We can suggest football has changed and attitudes to being gay have changed – and they have, but not everywhere and not for everyone. And while decent people may be able to counter their abuse in the long term, would you want to be the ones who have to put up with all the sh*t as this cultural battle is fought? Maybe nothing would happen, but would you want to take the risk?

Because we surround ourselves with people who largely feel like we do, it’s easy to think being gay isn’t a problem any more. Men’s football shows us it very much is.