By Tom Walters
Football: The beautiful game. A sport so intertwined with our national psyche that it's almost a mirror image of the mood of the nation. From the carnival of the years surrounding Euro '96 and the renewed sense of optimism matched with New Labour's sweep into number ten. To the austerity-measures pragmatism of Hodgson's eternally beleaguered squad of megastars. A team which has gone to epitomise the 'us versus them' culture, a game so utterly without relevance that it makes Theo Walcott seem like some small-headed martian with an ambitious intellect.
Added to this recent paradox has been the continuation of football as platform for abuse. Bigotry so 20th Century that it makes Oasis seem new and refreshing. With the obvious scars of the John Terry affair continuing to rattle on like some sordid Ron Atkinson afterthought, football is a sport that, however much we hate to admit it, is wrapped up in a thin blanket of hate.
Back in March, an initiative entitled football versus homophobia began with the aim to start to deal with one of football's most entrenched issues. An issue so ingrained into the sport that it is almost an unfortunate part of football culture itself: homophobia, one of the last great struggles to eradicate prejudice from the national game.
Last week, rainbow laces were sent out to every professional footballer at all 92 league clubs as part of a Stonewall campaign. The aim was to raise awareness against homophobia which Stonewall insist is still very much part of the game. "(Homophobia) absolutely, completely exists with thorough research suggesting that seven out of every ten football fans hear homophobic chants on a regular basis." Play football on any pitch up and down the country on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and homophobia is still the go-to choice of abuse amongst players. Arguably it is even more prevalent now than other forms of prejudice such as racism, which thankfully is on the downturn.
For clubs such as Brighton and Hove Albion, the situation is a never-ending cycle of abuse with opposition fans repeatedly directing insults and homophobic chants during and after the game. In fact, for the majority of Brighton fans, each game is another example of abuse on a monumental scale. It was reported back in April by the GSFN (Gay Football Supporters' Network) that Brighton fans had been subjected to homophobic abuse by at least 72% of opposition fans that season. A joint statement from the BHASC (Brighton supporters group) and GFSN, on the BBC website, read, "It wouldn't be described as "banter" if the taunts and chants were about skin colour and something would have been done by now to stop it." The Brighton case isn't isolated. A Stonewall survey carried out in 2009 suggested that 75% of fans across the country reported hearing regular homophobic chanting or abuse.
The situation is a confusing one where it would seem each club has its own particular stance to combat homophobic behaviour. For Andrew Corti, club secretary of London Titans, a gay-friendly football club, the issue is with both clubs and the FA themselves. "There is little being done plus attitudes amongst clubs vary when it's raised with them. The FA is keen to be seen to be doing something but you could question what real impact anything they've done to date has had."
To fight what is such an endemic problem within the sport, an approach throughout English football needs to be consistent if it is to be seen as universally supported, even if according to Corti, some clubs are starting to recognise the work that needs to done. "Some clubs are being quite proactive - a good example is Arsenal who are giving a lot of encouragement to an Arsenal gay supporters' group that was formed last season (the Gay Gooners). Liverpool and Manchester City have also done work with local LGBT teams and supporters."
For some clubs though the signals are less than clear. When I questioned Manchester United about their support for the football versus homophobia campaign, their response was slightly muted. "Manchester United supports the fight against homophobia in sport and it does so through the Premier League's official anti-discrimination campaign Kick It Out. The Kick It Out Equality Standard clearly illustrates the club's commitment to addressing homophobia, as part of tackling all forms of discrimination. There are many campaigns that seek the club's backing during any given season but our preference is to work with organisations that have an established relationship in the game."
As the biggest football club in the country and one of the biggest social loudspeakers in sport, an attachment to a campaign that most people would associate with racism, is not enough. With huge Premiership fixtures played every week, not least the Manchester derby yesterday, the time is right to send a clear and united message to the rest of the football stratosphere that homophobic prejudice will not be tolerated. It would take such little effort to publicly support a range of initiatives aimed at combating homophobia amongst fans; it only leads you to ask questions about the sincerity of Premiership clubs in their opposition to homophobic abuse.
However, both Stonewall and Corti agree that the reason for such a lack of footballers coming out (there are no openly gay players in the Premier League), stems from the likelihood of a negative supporter reaction. If this is the case, then it is the clubs themselves who carry all the power here by enforcing Crown Prosecution Service guidance and dealing robustly with any incidences of homophobic chanting. The fundamental issue when facing up to these problems is to be consistent; for all clubs to accept their responsibility for what the police describe as "unacceptable" as racism or drink-driving.
For Stonewall, it is about the power of the supporters to dictate to the clubs that change is needed. "If clubs see fans tweeting, much like they have been this week, then surely it will send a clear message that they are united in support." However, with the BBC reporting of 'naïve PR' on the part of the rainbow laces campaign, many will be scratching their heads at what could have been such a small show of solidarity without any real cause for fuss.
For most clubs, the fact that it was branded by the slightly odd sight of Paddy Power caused the most official consternation. However, after talking to clubs you cannot help but feel that they are dragging their heels on the issue by claiming a need for more time or consultation. For clubs such as Man United, the distinct lack of leadership on this issue is worrying. Laces aside, their ability to reach a potential audience of millions could be pivotal, yet they have no dedicated campaign that deals solely with homophobia.
Stonewall's view is simple; after 2009's survey, in their minds, nothing has been done. It would be hard to disagree.