In less than two weeks, two professional footballers have been punished for making homophobic comments on Twitter. On 12 January, Oxford City sacked Lee Steele for making an offensive remark about Gareth Thomas, the openly gay rugby league player. And on 24 January the FA fined Leicester City's Michael Ball for sending a homophobic tweet about the gay Coronation Street actor Anthony Cotton. Oxford City and the FA acted quickly to deal with the players; could it be that the game is finally getting to grips with homophobia?
Football's chronic problem with homophobia goes back decades. In the Nineties it was brought into sharp focus by the experiences of the England's first - and, to date, only - openly gay professional player, Justin Fashanu. After he came out in 1990 he faced years of unchallenged homophobic abuse from other players and managers, and found it hard to find a team willing to sign him. He killed himself in 1998 after being wrongly accused of sexual assault, leaving a suicide note saying he wanted to 'spare his family and friends 'more embarrassment'.
That convulsive episode could have shocked the FA into dealing with homophobia, just as hooliganism forced it to confront violence and sectarianism - but football is still riven with anti-gay attitudes. YouGov polling for Stonewall shows that over a quarter of football fans think the sport is anti-gay, while over half think the FA, the Premier League and the Football League aren't doing enough to deal with the problem. Over two thirds of fans say they've heard anti-gay language and abuse on the terraces - hardly a pleasant experience for the majority of fans who don't want to be intimidated by thuggish chants.
The FA stands almost alone among major sport governing bodies in England in failing to seriously address homophobia. The English Cricket Board and the Lawn Tennis Association have worked hard to attract gay people to crease and court, and both the Rugby Football League and the Rugby Football Union are proud supporters of gay players and teams. And importantly, young sports fans can look up to England's keeper-batsman Steve Davies and Gareth Thomas, a former English and Irish Lions star, as gay sporting heroes. This isn't just tokenism; as Davies explained when he came out last year, being open about his sexuality helped him become a better and more confident sportsman.
Sport's male bias is a different issue, but lesbian footballers also have a fine role model in Hope Powell, the coach of England's women's football team. Despite Powell's success, however, it's clear that the FA must do more to support gay people on pitches and terraces. Its low-profile support for 2008's Gay World Championships in London was a reasonable start, but gay-friendly attitudes have to be seen to permeate every level of the game.
The FA must be louder when it condemns homophobia, and tougher when players and fans engage in anti-gay abuse. Match officials and stewards must show that homophobia is unacceptable by taking robust action when they see it, inside and outside the ground. Straight footballers should follow ex rugby star Ben Cohen in speaking out about homophobia. And gay footballers must be given proper support if they decide to be open about who they are.
Governing bodies for cricket, tennis and rugby have shown that it's possible for gay people to play sport at a national level. Unless it does the same, the FA could leave our national game looking like a national embarrassment.
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