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Hope, Not Hate - The Time Is Right For Openly Gay Footballers

01/08/2017 12:31
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On the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK (England and Wales), Gareth Thomas' critical and, at times, unbalanced, BBC documentary last week claimed that English football risks 'being left in the dark ages' and that 'homophobic abuse is rife on football's terraces'.

In 2009, Thomas became the first active, professional rugby player to come out in what he described at the time as 'the toughest, most macho of male sports'. His coming out was met with unconditional acceptance in the world of professional rugby.

Professional football, however, has not had a pioneering figure like Thomas. Justin Fashanu, whose coming out in 1990 was met with horrifically intolerant bigotry, eventually leading to his suicide eight years later, remains English professional football's only active gay player. But since then, attitudes towards homosexuality have significantly improved in the UK, and also across most of the Western world.

Equal marriage and same-sex adoption are now a central feature of British life in the 21st century. Thomas' documentary, however, continually asserts that football culture is resistant to this social change, remaining a hotbed of homophobia - a line of reasoning also supported by LGBT organisations, whose flawed surveys frequently tend to exaggerate the extent of homophobia in the contemporary game. Even the FA chairman, Greg Clarke, controversially claimed in 2016, that 'it would be impossible for a gay Premier League player to come out'.

But these claims lack one pivotal thing: rigorous, impartial, empirical evidence. Academics who have researched this area extensively, such as myself, Dr Jamie Cleland, Professor Eric Anderson, Professor Mark McCormack and Professor Ellis Cashmore, have employed a range of large- and small-scale sampling techniques which show that, actually, English football has seen a dramatic improvement in its attitudes towards homosexuality - and the presence of gay players.

That a gay professional footballer hasn't come out in this country for almost three decades is, perhaps surprisingly for some, not evidence of homophobia. It may, of course, be a contributing factor - either real or perceived - but there are multiple and complex reasons why gay professional footballers remain in the closet.

English football clubs, especially in the upper echelons of the game, must travel to parts of the world - either in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League or pre-/post-season tours - where homosexuality remains illegal. The next two World Cups (2018 and 2022) are being held in countries where attitudes towards homosexuality are far more conservative than the UK, and in Qatar's case, remains illegal. Professional players also have to embrace the international nature of the dressing room: players from over 100 countries are represented in the Premier League. Alternatively, there may be contractual issues or complications, personal choice or concerns around the potential commercial ramifications of coming out.

But the biggest concern for an openly gay player likely centres around the issue of chanting inside football stadia, a key theme in Thomas' documentary. Specifically focusing on the case of Brighton and Hove Albion, whose fans reported in 2013 that homophobic chanting marred 72% of their matches, Thomas speaks of the lack of action taken by football's authorities to punish and tackle this abuse. This was also evident in the online abuse, or 'trolling', which occurs regularly. Interestingly, recent research on fans' online response to the coming out of former Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger shows that the vast majority of fans were supportive, and that discriminatory posts were challenged by other users. Sadly, we're not shown whether this is the case is Thomas' documentary, which appears to cherry-pick homophobic posts and portray them as the norm.

This norm, it was claimed, was allegedly enough to keep gay players in the closet, overlooking the recent positive experiences of other players in different parts of the world and at lower levels of the game - such as Anton Hysén, Liam Davis and Thomas Hitzlsperger. We did, however, hear from Robbie Rogers, who spoke of his experiences in English football, in which unspecified fan chanting led him to turn his back on the game. His U-turn, though, was borne out of widespread support from the football community. Given the evidence, there's no reason why this support wouldn't extend to a gay Premier League player, too.

Thomas is also highly critical of footballing authorities' role in facilitating an inclusive culture for gay footballers. And it is here where Thomas' documentary finds its legitimacy, for governing bodies' role in eradicating homophobia is questionable. We saw an uncomfortable interview with two members of the professional players' union, which Thomas argued was indicative of governing bodies' discomfort of the issue of homophobia. My latest research, which examines key stakeholders' responses to anti-homophobia initiatives in football, also shows significant shortcomings in what has been offered so far. It was therefore encouraging and commendable to see Thomas acting proactively to produce an anti-homophobia charter, which he hopes all professional clubs will sign-up to. This, hopefully, will have a more positive effect than current legislation.

But it is still important to note that it is still only a minority of fans who engage in such behaviour, and as Roisin Wood, CEO of UK football's leading equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out, outlines, different clubs address issues of discrimination in different ways.

In the documentary, Thomas also claims that 'you'll struggle to get a single player to talk about his support against homophobia because he stands the backlash of guilt by association'. But this contention is considerably wide-of-the-mark: recent years have seen players such as Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Lukas Podolski all publicly speak of their support for gay players - without fear of reprisal. Most of the Arsenal team - Giroud, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Arteta - even appeared in a video promoting the Premier League's Rainbow Laces campaign. Even managers have been in on the act: the current England manager Gareth Southgate and, more recently, Bournemouth's Eddie Howe have also stated their support, too. This is hardly evidence of 'guilt by association' as Thomas claims in his documentary.

To claim that English football continues to exist as 'the last refuge of extreme homophobia' is both inaccurate and unhelpful. It is also, as myself and colleagues recently argued, prejudice to assume homophobia among any group of people, without systematic evidence to support it. In this documentary, aside from the measly attempt to speak to online trolls, fans' voices (aside from Brighton and Hove Albion) are not heard. As such, to portray and assume that all fans harbour homophobic attitudes - when a minority engage in discriminatory chanting and online posts - is prejudice.

I'm not suggesting that homophobia in football has completely dissipated and doesn't exist at all; such claims would be short-sighted and naïve. But despite the claims made by Thomas in this flawed documentary, the overwhelming body of available evidence suggests that English football has moved on from its past homophobia, and has never been more ready for another openly gay player.

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