Interview: What is being done to stamp homophobia out of football?

Following an exclusive interview with publicist Max Clifford last week, Adrian Tippetts asks Piara Powar at Kick It Out what is happening to make LGBT people – whether as players, supporters, club members or staff – more welcome in football.

The efforts to eradicate homophobia in football are being driven by Kick It Out, the Football Association’s (FA) equality and inclusion body. Set up originally to tackle racism in 1997, the Shoreditch (London)-based team works throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination and encourage inclusive practices. It is also supported and funded by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the Premier League and the Football Foundation as well as the FA.

Piara Powar, director of Kick It Out, is under no illusion about the difficulty of eliminating homophobia from the game, but he dismisses those who say change can’t happen: “People said 20 years ago [that] we’d never kick racism out of football. Even black players said that. Today, it is unthinkable that an ethnic minority player should suffer racial abuse and [the perpetrator would] get away with it.”

Powar said: “We’ve done a lot of things to equip football clubs. Firstly, we’ve been clamping down on abuse on the terraces. We have shown stewards the procedures to take when abuse is reported, and at what stage to involve the police for example.” In the stands, that means knowing when abuse is serious enough to alert the head steward and the police. This approach has led to successful prosecutions, especially after the abuse suffered by Sol Campbell in 2008. Perpetrators can also expect to be banned from the stadium in addition to criminal charges.

Kick It Out is also working to tackle homophobia within the football clubs themselves. Powar said: “We have created a three-level Equality Standard. All Premiership clubs are required to achieve the basic level. As part of that we ask clubs to audit their club members on ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors. There is also a requirement to carry out an equality action plan, a training programme. In short all Premiership clubs are required to stop homophobia internally and on the terraces.”

Last December, Peter Tatchell and Outrage! met the FA to discuss the making of a video, in which top football stars would say homophobia was not welcome in football. This project has started, but with a limited budget, Powar is experiencing difficulties in meeting Tatchell’s expectations.

“We are still looking for players to get involved, but it’s not easy. We don’t have the budget and only have persuasive power. We have to get through numerous layers of people to actually reach the top players is ridiculous. Even if they have sympathy for the cause – they have agents or managers who might be talking them out of it. Agents are very crude individuals.”

Yet, to a forward-thinking player, the incentives to take are possibly greater than any financial reward. “Players should be jumping at the opportunity. Sponsors, for one, would be more than happy if their celebrities took part in a ground-breaking project like this. Also, it’s an opportunity for a player to show moral leadership, be remembered as a pioneer, and prove they have value beyond the game itself.”

If no brave men can step forward, Powar’s other option will be to use lesser-known players and celebrities, or actors to get the message across. The video is expected to be launched in October, to coincide with One Game, One Community week. Initially it will be released as an internet viral ad, before being shown in sports stadiums.

Last week, we revealed Max Clifford’s thoughts on homophobia in football. He suggested that a player who came out would see his career over in an instead. However, Powar thinks Clifford’s reaction does not reflect reality and describes the publicist’s comments as unnecessary ‘scaremongering.’ Indeed, attitudes have moved on so much since Justin Fashanu came out 20 years ago. Gay football teams across the country have emerged, playing in mainstream local leagues. Gays and lesbians are visible and accepted in virtually every other sphere of public life. Football stadiums and fundamentalist religious institutions seem to be the last, tiny islands of homophobic backwardness.

Powar admitted players may not have an easy ride but said he expected support from teammates and the media.

“There would be no nonsense from abusive fans, either”, he added.

“The police have a duty to stop hate crimes. Can you imagine them standing idly by while fans howl abuse? Of course not.”

The reason why the blatant abuse could not go unpunished is because, since 2007, homophobia is penalised heavily in the Players’ Code.

“The FA would come down like a ton of bricks on any perpetrator of homophobic abuse. Gay or bi players are protected by law E3(2) and E4, outlawing and punishing discrimination, among others on grounds of sexual orientation,” Powar said.

For a first offence, the penalty for such abuse, threats or violence is double that which would be applied had the aggravating factor not been present, warranting an immediate red card.

Furthermore, Powar is certain an out player would receive enthusiasm from sponsors: “Gay players would find it easier to achieve a unique positioning. In any case, the number of brands targeting the selling only heterosexual sex and the one-dimensional view of masculinity are a tiny few now. That’s dying out. Numerous mainstream brand owners, including big sports names, would welcome players talking about homophobia, even if the players are not personally affected by it themselves.”

The support available to players who may be gay or bi within a club is problematic and heavily dependent on management and training style. Powar thinks gay abuse does not feature in most training environments, but imagine there are still some old-style managers who shout homophobic abuse to urge players on. “But they don’t get the best results. The softer, more subtle styles, do better,” he advises.

Powar knows that coming out would be a major step for any player. And who even now, would want to be the first to make such a move? “That person must be extremely confident, and truly want to come out. But it has been done before, in Australian rugby league, by one of its hardest players, Ian Roberts. A major challenge within football is to break down the traditional macho ideas about what it means to be a man. It is difficult to debate that at a crude level, but it has to be done.”

Powar is optimistic the FA and the clubs will show greater understanding: “Once you have opened the door, there is no closing it, no way of absolving your responsibilities as a governing body, once you have brought Peter Tatchell in to talk about homophobia.”

A real test of the FA’s s commitment will be its willingness to condemn bigotry and ignorance, preferably on its own initiative, rather than waiting until human rights campaigners hear about it first. Here, the FA has been sluggish. Luiz Felipe Scolari, during his brief tenure as Chelsea manager last year, was never questioned about remarking that he would never knowingly have a gay player in his team. And which player would dare to stand up to a manager?

Powar: “If a similar comment was made by an influential personality in the game, we would hold it up to ridicule. The FA probably could possibly fine them – I am sure there is an offence because they are under a disciplinary code”

Kick It Out’s website will also be redesigned soon to represent all areas of equality in which it campaigns. Currently, the imagery is heavily biased towards anti-racism. John Amaechi, former basketball player in the USA and motivational speaker, is also working as a consultant to the team, advising on performance management.