Friday, March 1, 2013

Football v Homophobia

Just imagine for a moment, if you will, a sprawling mass of young men, their athletic, sweating bodies embracing in the throes of passion. Mouths contort in ecstasy; muscles tense with exhilaration; they collapse to the ground as yet more join the joyous congress. As public displays of homo-eroticism go there aren’t many finer examples than the obligatory man-love of a goal celebration. Which is somewhat ironic given that homophobia is still part-and-parcel of the football world.
 
Figures collected by the Football Association (FA) suggest that 64% of LGBT people are put off by football’s perceived homophobia, while 70% of football fans interviewed say that they have “heard homophobia in football in the past five years” – although it is unclear as to whether these are comments from individuals or chants from sections of fans (not that it matters, just interested in knowing).
 
Time and time again all the surveys carried out, whether by the FA, the NUS, or Stonewall, point to the fact that a majority of the LGBT community feels excluded from sport in general and football in particular. In this context the FA's new Football v Homophobia campaign is most welcome. It was launched at the West Ham v Tottenham match on Monday night where both sides wore campaign t-shirts prior to kick-off. Hammers captain Kevin Nolan said:
"It's important that we, as a club and as a squad, support the Football v Homophobia campaign. We're role models and we've got to ensure that we respect all members of society and show that we're open minded. If someone told me, or any of the lads, that they were gay, it wouldn't change our view of them one iota and that's the only way it can be, so it's a vital message to push."
I don't doubt the sincerity of Nolan's statement - even if it's obviously been penned by the Upton Park PR department. But it is a sad indictment of the FA that this campaign has taken so long to materialise. Individual clubs have already made moves to combat homophobia and forge stronger links with the LGBT community - providing a framework for the FA's own work. Indeed the FA cite the examples of Liverpool FC (who in August 2012 became the first Premier League club to be involved in a Pride event), Crystal Palace and good old Rushden and Diamonds, a club one assumes has far fewer resources at its disposal than football's governing body. 

As part of its initiative the FA have distributed a toolkit to all 92 clubs in the Premier and Football Leagues. Much of it will be standard fair, not to mention a little tame, for the seasoned campaigner. There is good advice on building relationships with local LGBT groups, sample statements and press releases, tips on how best to use social media, ideas for posters and wording suggestions for tannoy announcements. Also there is an appeal for clubs to reach out to LGBT youth groups alongside a timely reminder that young people continue to face the most terrible homophobic bullying. It is all run-of-the-mill sort of stuff, indeed it's the kind of thing that a club's Social Inclusion Officer (an Orwellian sounding job title if ever there was one) should be able to knock together in a few hours.
 
In fact the more you read the pack, the more baffled you become by its simplicity. After reading it part of me wondered whether the FA had churned out the material just to tick 'diversity' off its 2013 to-do list. Two parts made me think again; each suggesting that the toolkit's intended audience - clubs' boards of directors - need leading by the hand when it comes to tackling bigotry. The first is the inclusion of a glossary explaining such terms as "lesbian", "gay", and "homophobia". Maybe the authors had a blank page of space to fill, or felt it was necessary for the sake of completeness. Or perhaps they had considered their readership and genuinely thought a glossary warranted inclusion so as to "clear up any ambiguity". The second section which prompted me to reconsider my initial thoughts contained the following quote:
"Making football environments welcoming of LGB&T people therefore is not just a matter of doing the right thing. It’s also about increasing supporters, selling more tickets and more merchandise. Consumer research shows exceptional levels of brand loyalty amongst LGB&T consumers; so engaging LGB&T people in your club could prove beneficial in the long term."
As an argument for opposing homophobia this smacks of both desperation and cynicism. It says to the reactionary club chairman, "Not convinced about equality? Think again. These gay people have money!" Principle is replaced with the promise of the pink-pound. No doubt this reflects the FA's own mind-set where profit is always the primary consideration, but it also speaks volumes, I think, about the politics of some people running football clubs across the country.
 
One problem facing Football v Homophobia - aside from reactionary intransigence - is that the FA aren't known for their success in creating grassroots campaigns. Ideally they would have wanted an openly gay footballer to front the campaign, thereby generating a wave of media attention and goodwill. The trouble is there are still no openly gay male footballers in this country. As far as I can tell there is only one openly gay footballer in all of Europe - Anton Hysén who plays in the third tier of the Swedish league. Recently the former Leeds player and USA international Robbie Rogers came out before posting a moving statement on his blog stating that he was retiring from the game with immediate effect. This is in stark contrast to the women's game where a number of European players past and present, including England's current national coach, Hope Powell, are openly lesbian.
 
The only professional footballer to have come out as gay in the history of the English game was Justin Fashanu. As a young black player in the 1980s Fashanu was already struggling with discrimination before publically declaring his sexuality in 1990. As a result he was shunned by some of his teammates, suffered a breakdown in the relationship with his brother, and was at the centre of a string of kiss and tell stories in the media - all of which I'd wager were untrue. Fashanu had been an England Under-21 international and became the first £1 million black player when he signed for Nottingham Forest. The manager who bought him, Brian Clough, soon guessed that Fashanu was gay, some ten years before the player came out, and proceeded to treat the young striker in the most unforgivably homophobic fashion. After this experience Fashanu's career never really recovered.
 
In 1998 Fashanu was alleged to have been involved in an altercation with a young man in the US. He returned to England, thereby avoiding arrest, but remained convinced the authorities would at some stage move to prosecute. Within a month of moving back to London Justin Fashanu committed suicide. His suicide note read, "I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family." An inquest would later reveal that there was no warrant for his arrest. No doubt Fashanu's personal nightmare weighs heavy on those players since who have considered making their own sexuality public.

Highlighting this tragedy, or the more general problems, should not, however, be taken as an indication that other sports have succeeded where football has failed. With the exception of a handful of high profile instances - I'm thinking primarily (exclusively?) of Martina Navratalova and Billie-Jean King - sport has seemingly remained a bastion of heteronormativity. One need only look at the treatment of the South African runner Caster Semenya to see how badly sporting authorities continue to treat people who don't fit their cosy, nineteenth century ideas of gender norms. At the London Olympics last year there were only a reported 18 gay athletes out of a total 12,602 competitors. But there have been small and noticeable changes recently. In 2007 John Amaechi, an English basketball star in the NBA, spoke openly about his sexuality, although the effect was felt more keenly in the States than in the UK. Gareth Thomas, Wales' most capped rugby union player, came out in 2009 whilst still playing professionally. The fact that the Welshman then topped the 2010 Independent on Sunday 'Pink List' - a selection of the most influential people from the LGBT community - was an indication of just how large a step he had taken.

Others have followed in their wake. The Puerto Rican boxer, Orlando Cruz, came out last year, describing in this wonderful and highly recommended Guardian interview how he "lost one friend who was murdered by people who hated gay men. I was very angry then because homophobia ended his life in the most violent way. But I was also angry because, at the time, I was hiding this secret of mine." In 2011 Steven Davies became the first international cricketer to announce he was gay in this interview with the Daily Telegraph. Despite the support of his family and teammates Davies understood how some LGBT people were put off from participating in sport:
"Too many who don't participate in sport find the culture around sport alienating or unwelcoming, and many had negative experiences at school or experienced discrimination which put them off participating." 
These are welcome developments and are mirrored by a growing willingness on behalf of straight sportspeople to speak out on questions of homophobia and oppression. Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker with reigning SuperBowl champions the Baltimore Ravens, has been outspoken in his support of the LGBT community. Last January the British tennis player Laura Robson wore a rainbow hairband at the Australian Open in solidarity with the gay community following disgustingly homophobic comments from one-time player Margaret Court. Yet football, by virtue of its position as the national game, indeed the most popular game in the world, will always be the yardstick by which many people measure sport's commitment to challenging homophobia.
 
Statistically speaking it is highly likely that there are gay footballers playing professionally today, dotted around the biggest clubs, in the most high profile leagues, heroes to millions of people. Why then do none feel capable of coming out? The Secret Footballer, an unnamed professional who writes a regular column in The Guardiantackled this question and concluded that the blame lies with the fans. There is, no doubt, some truth to this assertion. We live in a world where the words 'gay' and 'poof' are routinely used as terms of abuse; inevitably the bigotry of wider society finds an expression on the terraces. Occasionally this appears in the most ludicrous form - such as the abuse aimed at (the heterosexual) Greame Le Saux during his playing career. The former Chelsea and England left-back was erroneously outted by virtue of being softly spoken and his preference for reading a broadsheet newspaper. Not that the abuse was limited to supporters - Le Saux was infamously taunted by fellow pro Robbie Fowler during a match. (Fowler himself was often on the receiving end of disgusting and unwarranted abuse, most of which was based on a rumour that his sister was a heroin addict. The former Liverpool frontman is a study in contradictory consciousness and really deserves a post all of his own.)
 
But there are also occasions when the abuse from the terraces takes the vilest of forms. Young footballers have been reduced to wrecks after being targeted by an opposition's fans, and once a crowd is in this mood, and sense that they are beginning to affect a player's performance, their insults only intensify. To this end the Secret Footballer recounts the treatment of Sol Campbell who was subjected to horrendous racist and homophobic abuse by Spurs fans. I quote the section in full to demonstrate the ferocity and vitriol on display that day, and apologise in advance for any offence it may cause:
“Rewind to Fratton Park, September 2008, when Sol Campbell was subjected to homophobic abuse and a section of Spurs supporters were caught on film singing: "Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, Not long now until lunacy, We won't give a fuck if you are hanging from a tree, You are a Judas cunt with HIV." Apologies if you didn't like reading those words. But spare a thought for how Campbell felt when he was listening to them.”
Unquestionably homophobia exists amongst a section of football fans - although I would hesitate to conclude that this is representative of the majority, or that such discrimination goes unchallenged by fans themselves. Their bigotry is visible but I am reluctant to fully concur with the Secret Footballer. Can we say with certainty that the culture of the training ground doesn't intimidate footballers into remaining silent about their sexuality? Do managers, coaches and other backroom staff hold views akin to Brian Clough some thirty years ago? Surely homophobia is as likely to appear in the dressing room as it is in the stand? The Stonewall survey conducted in 2009 found that a third of fans think "gay professional players are unable to come out because clubs, managers or teammates would discriminate against them or subject them to anti-gay abuse." Times have changed, possibly even in the world of football, but without players coming out and telling the story of their experiences there is little first hand evidence to go on.
 
Where evidence does exist, taken from the wider sporting world, the picture is at best uneven. Many openly gay sportspeople talk of the support they have received from other players, fans and coaches. Other examples are far less inspiring. Dave Zirin's latest piece in The Nation, highlights the practice of NFL bosses grilling rookies and prospective signings on the details of their personal lives, whether they have a wife, and whether "they like girls". These questions - inappropriate, immoral and illegal - are justified on the basis that coaches need to ensure potential recruits won't upset the chemistry and camaraderie of the locker room. Do football managers in this country operate in the same fashion? 

The only article I can find which has attempted to investigate the views of football managers on homophobia and the lack of openly gay players dates back to 2005. More importantly, and most tellingly, it ends in an epic fail. Following an FA meeting exploring ways to tackle homophobia in football the BBC's Matt Williams contacted the bosses at all 20 Premier League clubs. He asked them three questions: 1) Why are there no openly gay professional players? 2) Could an openly gay footballer fit comfortably into the dressing-room culture? 3) Is this something football needs to address? Not one manager was willing to answer the questions. Some claimed they did not answer surveys, others said that they were "uncomfortable" with the questions being asked. One email response, obviously not intended for the eyes of the journalist, asked, "should we touch this or palm them off with a 'can't comment'?" 
 
In the absence of a mass movement against homophobia in wider society we are left in an awkward Catch-22. A large-scale campaign is perhaps unlikely to take off at the present time without a high profile figure coming out. That person is unlikely to have the confidence to come forward unless a large-scale campaign can provide sufficient generosity and support. Will that circle be unbroken? I have little faith in the FA – and this campaign is long overdue – but Football v Homophobia is a step, however small, in the right direction. As such it should be welcomed. Could it inspire a current professional player to publically declare that hey are gay? Not only does this seem unlikely, it is also an incredible ask. The inevitable media circus would weigh heavy on their shoulders, and one can only speculate as to the effect it would have on the player’s career - let alone any relationship in which they may be involved. Moreover, assuming one were able to dismiss the effects of bigotry, even professional footballers are entitled to keep their private life private whatever their sexuality. In an era of tabloid hackery and the internet rumour mill, what footballer would want to give that up?