Gay pride and football prejudice

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background. Exclusive

As Ashley Cole files his lawsuit over “gay orgy” allegations, the Football Association’s director of Corporate Affairs, Simon Johnson tells’s Marc Shoffman, how English football is leading the fight against homophobia and discrimination.

When you walk into the FA head office in trendy Soho Square, you are greeted with the three lions roaring with pride as plasma screens blast out the latest sports news alongside pictures of top English stars. A cabinet shows off sparkling trophies that professional football players sweat and strive for each week.

The displays demonstrate former and present days of glory, times when teamwork and dedication to the team badge shone through. But the idea of identity and support has often fallen apart once you mention homosexuality in football.

On some football stands, being gay is a form of ridicule. Brighton and Hove Albion supporters face anti-gay chants each week and the family of Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998 after becoming the only professional footballer to have come out, know only too well the negative effects of homophobic abuse from fans.

Johnson explains that the problem of homophobia in football can’t be measured, but “I just know discrimination of any forms can’t be tolerated.”

“The FA is leading the way on tackling homophobia in football and our work is becoming recognised across Europe. We underline our opposition to homophobia in our football for all strategy along with race and disability discrimination. Abuse of any such nature can now be tackled by the FA via sanctions and potential bans” he says.

It seems strange that the entertainment industry is full of openly gay people, but once you try to ask about gay sportsmen, silence and injunctions come forward, “Whether a footballer wishes to open declare their sexuality is a private matter for each individual, and our work

is not targeted at outing players” said Johnson.

Over the last few years media outlets have chuckled at so called gay sex scandals, top players have accused each other of being gay and more recently fans have been banned from grounds for homophobic abuse, but Johnson is keen to stress that rather that pointing fingers, it is

an issue that should be raised and combated. “If fans feel they are being abused they can complain to our customer relations department or if we find that a player is guilty of homophobic abuse, they can be disciplined via the FA’s, processes.”

“The media’s attitude in the main is treating the subject objectively, and recently we have contributed to programmes on homophobia in football on the BBC. The success of the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign has been hugely successful in raising awareness around other

discrimination issues.”

And compared to other countries homophobia policies, it seems the FA is in the lead. Four Bulgarian footballers were sacked last year for gay acts and in Turkey football’s governing body once took a ballet dancer to court over comments about gay footballers.

Closer to home, a Scottish Football Association press officer recently denied that homophobia was a problem and insisted racism and sectarianisms were more important root issues.

The FA is clearly much more attack orientated when it comes to tackling these issues, “We can’t interfere in issues affecting other countries as we are still on an upward learning curve ourselves, but we are leading the way and are more than happy to offer guidance and support where it is appropriate or requested.”

For Johnson, the priority that the guardians of the game in England have placed on tackling homophobia demonstrates how far the FA has come. “There is an outmoded view of the FA that we are an ageing, elitist organisation that doesn’t listen to the views of people involved at all levels of the game, but that couldn’t be less true. We now work closely with a wide range of stakeholders and are ready and willing to embrace views and opinions which may be able to take the game on to another level.”

For a game that is watched and played by millions, the likelihood of a gay person on the pitch, in the crowd or watching at home is obvious. The FA’s stance and work with gay groups is definitely positive, but Johnson points out, “the FA can play it’s part but we cannot solve society’s problems.”

Maybe not but as a highly popular, identity and support orientated medium, it’s a good start.