The words with which Jason Collins begins his eloquent announcement to the world of sport are simultaneously simple and courageous: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." He claims he wishes he "wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying "I'm different"": but, as the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport, he is. He also says that he doesn't wish to be defined by his sexuality any more than he is by his race: unfortunately, he will.
For the significant minority in American (and western) society still vocally homophobic, every shirked challenge, every missed shot will no doubt be held up as evidence that gays can't play ball: however, as a 7-foot, 255-pound goliath who has earned a reputation for being one of the toughest in the game, such claims won't remain credible for very long. Similarly, for gay rights supporters, Collins will be heralded as a champion for the movement. The manner in which he's come out suggests that he'll accept such a mantle: he's said he's "happy to start the conversation". And a start is just what this is. The bravery of Collins is heartening, and will embolden America's closeted teens and give a response to those facing homophobic abuse or Neanderthal stereotypes which suggest gay men are somehow less masculine than their homophobic counterparts. Leaving Shaq in the dust on the way to a dunk? Yeah, that's gay now. But the fact that the simple act of a dude saying he likes sleeping with other dudes and also happens to be able to is such a headline-maker indicates just how far away sport in general is from fully accepting homosexuality. Nowhere is that more true than in English football.
English football has only ever had one openly gay player, Justin Fashanu, a forward who in the height of his career had been the first ever black player to command a transfer fee of over £1million. In 1991 he came out to The Sun in a scandalising piece which included tales of affairs with married Tory MPs, which were followed up by the then Kelvin MacKenzie-edited newspaper with what Fashanu alleged were largely untrue stories of further liaisons with other celebrities. In addition to his being hounded by the media, he was met with horrific abuse on the terraces and was ostracised by his footballing brother, John, who claimed he would "not want to play or even get changed with him".
After (unfounded) allegations of molestation were levelled at him in 1998, Fashanu took his own life. Undoubtedly, the unspeakably tragic experience of the one player to ever be open about their homosexuality has and will continue to deter others from coming out too. But more than that, English football remains a phenomenally hostile environment for gays. Graeme Le Saux, married with children, nonetheless endured homophobic abuse from fans and fellow players in the 1990s because he read the Guardian: "Because I had different interests, because I didn't feel comfortable in the laddish drinking culture that was prevalent in English football in the late 1980s, it was generally assumed by my teammates that there was something wrong with me. It followed, naturally, that I must be gay." Similarly, in the last decade, Sol Campbell, also married, had unparalleled levels of vitriol levelled at him by jaded Spurs fans for his supposed sexual 'deviancy'. 'He's big, he's black. He takes it up his crack. Sol Campbell, Sol Campbell' and 'Sol, Sol, wherever you may be / You're on the verge of lunacy / And we don't give a f**k if you're hanging from a tree / You Judas c**t with HIV' being two particularly popular chants amongst the White Hart Lane faithful. Many players, including the Guardian's 'Secret Footballer' and Manchester United's Anders Lindegaard in a thoughtful blog post, have suggested that the abuse from the terraces is what has held players back from being open about their homosexuality, rather than fellow players. Given the past, and with the majority of fans still drawn from predominantly white, working-class areas, in which homosexuality can still remain a huge taboo this isn't hard to see (a generalisation that is as messy as it is true).
The footballing world can't wait for its own Jason Collins to emerge: it needs to be far more proactive. Whilst the FA's 'Football v Homophobia' campaign, offering advice as to how clubs can challenge homophobic abuse and make matches more welcoming for LGBTQ fans, is a start, but it is a scandal that only 8 Premier League clubs have signed up to it. Clubs' lack of commitment to this issue is astonishing. The FA itself also needs to go further, investigating and prosecuting incidences of homophobic chanting with the same severity it does those of racist abuse: the common excuses for homophobia of ignorance or 'just banter' become less tenable when the issues in question are given sustained scrutiny in the public eye. Moreover, straight players need to be more forthcoming in their advocacy of anti-homophobic causes. For example, West Ham captain Kevin Nolan gave his support for the 'Football v Homophobia' campaign with an exhortation for players to recognise their duties: '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 came to me and 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." They also, however, need to be consistent: Joey Barton chided homophobes, saying "more fool them, and their lack of social awareness and intelligence", but has in the past, managed to venture from his glass house long enough to threaten to sue a journalist for insinuating that he may be gay, and more recently derided an opponent as a "ladyboy".
The ultimate encouragement for a player to come out, would probably be that there were sufficient other gay peers for it not to be such an issue, or at least enough to be able to offer support. As it stands, that day seems a long way off. If the Premier League is to wait for its own Jason Collins, it may be waiting a very long time, time in which gay kids are still told what they can and can't achieve by outdated stereotypes, and gay players are forced to go through their careers in closeted misery. That wait will be too long. English football needs to be made a less scary to be gay. For that to be achieved, genuine organic social change needs to occur. However, the FA and Premier League, can aid and augment that change, by showing an unwavering commitment to anti-homophobia, and encouraging clubs, players (who need to be more sensitive and vocal) and fans to alter their behaviours and attitudes. It is a change as necessary as it is urgent.