The “news” that some footballers are gay is not a shock. But yet again this week, we’ve had to deal with endless speculation and a predictable and damaging campaign to try force people to come out and yet again, the bigoted not-so-underbelly of professional football has again been thrust into the limelight.
The latest chapter of this sorry tale began back in October, when FA Chairman Greg Clarke told Westminster’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee that he “wouldn’t recommend” a player came out. Clarke’s comments were widely condemned and were certainly not as supportive as they should have been – but a massive issue seems to have been made of what he said, rather than the reality it reflects. While the boss of the FA should certainly be “ashamed” of the culture he’s responsible for changing, he’d have been equally condemned for pretending homophobia wasn’t an issue.
Following the furore over his initial appearance, Clarke was dragged back before the committee to explain himself again this week, with SNP MP John Nicolson using his appearance as an opportunity to… wildly speculate that there were 3 gay players “in talks” with the FA about coming out. What the actual fuck?
It’s not the role of MPs to be spreading gossip about the privates lives of people who kick balls about for a living. People deserve to be allowed to come out on their own terms, if they chose to, and by trying to centre himself in a story that’s not his to tell, John Nicolson only risks making that more difficult. I would be prepared to offer sincere apologies if he’d sought the permission of all 3 of these men to raise this issue in parliament – but the one quote that’s not been prominently featured in the press is that, when questioned, Nicolson said he was, erm, “not speaking from a position of knowledge” or as we might say round these parts “was talking a lot of pish.” He’s since clarified he was (inaccurately) recounting a story from the Mirror from October 2015, with the FA confirming no such “talks” exist.
Yet the predictable feeding frenzy in the press is not less than someone like Nicolson, a journalist by trade, would have expected. Best of luck to any 3 footballers who’ve ever been out together, who ever happened to smile, or *gasp* touch each other; you’ve been chucked into the “he does look a bit gay in that one” ring by an elected representative and the ever hungry media.
We watched last weekend as EVERY SINGLE PAPER ran a story about whether X-Factor winner Matt Terry and fellow contestant Freddy Parker kissed. If they had, so said every paper, the only logical conclusion was that they were not just gay but in a secret romantic relationship. The message this sends is utterly horrendous: physical contact between men is for devious gays, you don’t get to kiss your pal without signing over your wedding photos and post-divorce workout book to the Mirror first.
The same papers who, just days ago, were shaming men for possible displays of affection in public are now acting like they’re not responsible for a situation which keeps people in the public eye firmly in the closet. This all serves to creates the impression that homophobia exists because of dishonest gay people, whether they be footballers or talent show contestants – the focus becomes why they don’t just come out, so we can gawk at them scratching their balls on holiday with their boyfriends. We need to keep insisting that homophobes are the ones who need to accept responsibility for homophobia, not gay players or fans or even tedious Matt Terry.
There’s little doubt much of this desire to not take responsibility for changing the culture around professional football is about ad revenues, sponsorship deals, kit sales; about the people making money not wanting to take the small percentage point risk of acknowledging that actually, LGBT+ people like and play football too, in case their already meager share price drops for an afternoon or people cancel their subscriptions to their streaming services. A recent survey suggested 8% of fans would stop following their team if they had an openly gay player, even if the majority of them don’t, that’s still a wee dip on a graph somewhere, one money men aren’t prepared to accept.
But there is also clearly a culture of bigotry which goes to the very top of professional football. The efforts of clubs and Football Associations in trying to change that have been pretty bleak. Every year, Stonewall attempt to get the big clubs to pretend to give a shit about homophobia for a weekend, as part of their Rainbow Laces campaign, and every year a few do. The vociferous backlash from a small handful of fans only underlines how needed this campaign is – and the fact so few clubs participate in it sends a very clear message to gay players and gay fans about what their clubs really think of them.
As if to underline just how backward those making decisions about football really are, 5 elderly white men who we’re not sure represent anyone wrote a letter in which they condemned, “some 25 life vice-presidents on the FA Council – all elderly white men – who do not represent anyone but block even the most minor of changes”.
Back in frozen North, the appointment of Malky Mackay as the SFA’s new Performance Director is a handy reminder that no-one actually cares about not promoting bigotry. Mackay left Cardiff City following the revelation of thousands of text messages, including various racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic and homophobic rants.
The fawning coverage of his appointment by the media boys club stinks and it couldn’t be further from the reaction of many of the fans. Mackay told a press conference, “I have been involved in diversity and equality meetings and basically been on an education to the point where I probably know more about it than anybody in this room.” That statement says a lot more about the people who fill a room for a Hampden press conference than it does about Malky Mackay. A man who complained of a lack of “white faces” and referred to someone as “a gay snake”, is being sold in the press as the best we could all have hoped for.
The actions of those in positions of power matter because they shape whether kids want to get involved in football and whether players in the public eye can go to work and feel supported by their workmates and employers. The focus shouldn’t be on whether those players chose to share their private lives or innermost thoughts with gossiping editors, politicians or the public but on why we continue to allow homophobia to exclude people from football. Those involved in the sport at every level need to start putting positive role models in positions of authority now, not hoping for some mythical gay superhero to come along and save us from the inevitable homophobia that simply must accompany a bit of sport.
We need to speak out against a culture where discrimination is not taken seriously because the consequences are too grim if we don’t. LGBT+ people live shorter lives than our peers and while participation in sport may only account for a small part of why that’s the case, we can’t lose sight of why this all matters. There are a growing number of LGBT teams, supporters clubs and assorted agencies doing the grunt work needed to create a more inclusive sport for everyone – but while the media and those at the top continue to act with such indifference towards homophobia in football, there are clearly a lot more balls to be kicked before we get anywhere close to that goal.