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Irish Equal Rights: Why Football Must Be Next

Never short of an opinion, and in one of his more perky reflections to date, Morrissey has suggested that the same-sex marriage referendum in his homeland at the weekend was a case of "the people once again teaching the church, the people once again teaching politics". If an upside of the oft-maligned referendum is people-power, it makes you wonder where else it could be employed to useful effect.

While Ireland said a euphoric yes to great fanfare on Saturday afternoon, the contrast was stark as tumbleweed blew around deserted English football grounds. A strangely anti-climatic season began to fade away, the only couple of issues left to resolve bumped back to a super-needy Super Sunday. Such hopeful hyperbole may have happily distracted from the fact that without kicking a ball that afternoon, football lost: ground, momentum, kudos - you name it.

Back in Dublin, at the same time the Final Score vidi-printer would normally be whirring into life, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin already knew the score, conceding the church needed a reality check. "I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day" is a sentence you won't have heard from football anytime recently and when the Catholic Church beats you to the chase, you know you're dragging your heels.

The only result that mattered on Saturday, then, leaves the former beautiful game an increasingly isolated institution - an island of bigotry with excuses and allies fast running out. Within sport it can no longer point to its natural associates. Both rugby's Gareth Thomas and referee Nigel Owens have spoken out about their sexuality and been well received, while wicketkeeper Steven Hughes came out in 2011 and the cricket world continued to turn. Outside of it, the military, tabloids and politics have all entered the 21st century chastened and changed. Not football.

Is it any wonder why those out players with a connection to our domestic game - Rogers, Hysen, Hitzlsperger - have never stayed long enough to test the water? In the same way the Catholic Church as a force for good has been compromised by it's archaic hang-ups, so football's enviable ability to unite is consistently undone by it's own dated door policy. And it's the game that suffers. It's difficult to set about re-creating the highs of, say, '66 or '96 without first acknowledging that the construction of society has changed and at least making an attempt to reflect that.

Frustratingly the frenzied buck-passing of recent years on homophobia within the game shows no sign of abating. A recent study published in The Observer initially offers some hopeful parallels with the Irish Referendum. Among those under 22, more gay men who played team sports in the UK were likely to be out among their fellow players than in any other country - an encouraging stat and one that chimes with the inspiring & emotive youth-led #hometovote campaign of the weekend.

Elsewhere however, the survey predictably targets the fans as the problem and it feels like we're going round in circles once again. Dangerous assumptions are made - 85% of (both gay and straight) participants saying that an openly gay person would not be safe as a spectator at a match is not the same as 85% of football fans saying they are homophobic.

Surveys like these perfectly highlight the culture of fear surrounding the issue in football that has, if anything, intensified in the last twenty years (lets not forget an English player came out in 1990 encouraged by his management and played on). Never mind the fans, you'll still struggle to find a pundit happy to discuss homophobia anything like as swiftly as they would racism on mainstream television.

When football's very own archbishop, Sepp Blatter's decision to make a joke about the Qatar world cup ("gay fans should refrain from sexual activities"), actually comes as some sort of light relief (if deeply offensive), you know too there is an issue with our own domestic players and manager's speaking out.

So are the pundits, authorities, players and managers all scared of the fans? If so might they consider actually asking their opinion? The power of the Irish vote came not only from it's youth-base but was fuelled too by an encouraging axis of straight and gay voters united in their determination to change history.

It's interesting to think what the result of a fan 'referendum' on homophobia in football might be. Away from the pack mentality of match days, it's hard to imagine football fans putting a cross against gay players. Indeed, they may well surprise people. Perhaps both gay and straight fans may even follow Ireland's lead allowing some of Saturday's euphoria to sweep through the English game. Given the chance, could the people teach football?

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