Comment: Football needs a culture change, not a gay role model

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Let’s give credit where it’s due: last Monday’s BBC3 programme Britains Gay Footballers presented by Amal Fashanu, niece of Justin Fashanu, generated serious debate about homophobia in football, in mainstream media and the football blogosphere.

Barnsley FC’s goalie David Preece suggested Amal Fashanu was the wrong choice to investigate the matter. This viewpoint, in an otherwise thoughtful article, is somewhat unkind: it’s arguably the very fact that so few footballers are willing to candidly speak out on homophobia that it has been left to a 23-year media studies graduate and model to ask some hard questions.

Amal deserves credit for being the first to call to account her own father, John Fashanu, whose chilling, public rejection of his vastly more talented brother, compounded the devastation that Justin must have felt.

The programme was most notable for challenging the perception of football being an impenetrable bastion of homophobia. Max Clifford’s intransigent doom-mongering about how coming out would ruin a footballer’s career challenged, by footage of Sweden’s openly gay player Anton Hysén enjoying changing-room banter with team-mates and support from the stands. Perhaps the greatest coup of all was the willingness of a premiership player, QPR captain Joey Barton, to speak out and ridicule ‘archaic’ attitudes of managers who are preventing players from being open.

There is in fact more reason for hope in the offence taken by Preece at what he regards as the demonisation of footballers. “I couldn’t think of a more welcoming place to reveal your sexual preferences than inside a footballer’s dressing room’

However, the overall picture is far from one of acceptance. Homophobic chanting is a weekly endurance for Brighton’s fans; and a string of homophobic callers, one asking for separate changing rooms, left Nicky Campbell and guests of his BBC Radio 5 phone-in dumbfounded last Thursday. Statistics show that 29 percent of the UK population thinks same-sex relations are sometimes or always wrong, and an Observer poll in 2008 stated that nearly one in four thinks homosexuality should be recriminalised. Football, being the nation’s favourite sport is simply a barometer of the bigotry that is rife and unchallenged in society.

The disappointment with the programme was that no managers or high-ranking FA officials were interviewed. A significant amount of direction and resources will be needed to change the culture and attitudes within football, through club hierarchies and at grass roots, Sunday league level too.

Currently, the FA and the government are patting themselves on the back for putting together an LGBT charter, full of good intentions about banishing homophobia and transphobia from the game. But the precise details of how this campaign will make life better for LGBT players and supporters are anything but clear.

However, instead of pressing the FA on this matter, the media and some in the gay community obsess themselves with the moronic question: when will we see an out gay player? I suspect this is driven as much by the tabloid press going to ever more desperate measures to titillate readers and buck declining sales figures, and some activists seeking another trophy in the role model cabinet.

Why should a footballer come out to the whole nation? Most of us are out to friends and work-colleagues, but that’s all. True, the media is no longer full of homophobic columnists like the Star’s Brian Hitchen and the Sun’s Gary Bushell, whose innuendo-laden diatribes reinforced the very worst prejudices. But even if the coming out were reported in glowing terms, the very experience of being in the media spotlight can be ruinous for concentration and performance. And as the Leveson inquiry has revealed, the extremes that reporters go to, to sniff out an exclusive could make life intolerable.

Here are a number of questions, which clubs – with the exception of Manchester City – have been loathe to answer but must be put under pressure to do so:

How are clubs promoting a welcoming, accepting environment for gay or bi players? What standards are in place with respect to language and conduct, and are these contractually binding? Do these obligations extend to managers and training staff, especially with respect to language used? How is the club monitoring and addressing prejudice? What procedures and disciplinary measures are in place for dealing with homophobic abuse or bullying? What support is available to LGBT staff and players facing abuse or in need of someone to talk to?

The Rugby Football League has made tremendous efforts to make the game fully inclusive. All major clubs have diversity officers, and LGBT working groups that are providing support to a number of players.

Another point, often missed, is that the game already has numerous openly gay teams. The oldest, London’s Stonewall FC in the Middlesex County League, and Village Manchester, have been challenging stereotypes, for 21 and 15 years respectively, by battling it out on the pitch every weekend. As Village Manchester manager Antony Lockley explained to Nicky Campbell, many of his players came from far afield because they saw no way of being accepted in their local club, because outside the big cities, as the prejudice is rife.

By playing regularly with mainly straight teams, these clubs have obliterated the insidious notion of gay people being predators. At least three people on the Radio 5 show called to say how uncomfortable they would feel in the showers or changing rooms in the presence of a gay person. This argument was quashed in the armed forces long ago, but it’s important that people are encouraged to ask themselves how they know this to be true, and that beliefs based on no evidence are suspected, not respected.

Even though it is good to see action taken, the FA is failing to communicate why and how homophobia is damaging when it occurs. And this makes me worry about the effectiveness of its campaigns. Its failure was most apparent when Lee Steele was sacked by Oxford City for his tweets about ‘padlocking his arse’ when near gay rugby player Gareth Thomas. Many fans were outraged, claiming it was an overreaction.

In cases like this, instead of issuing meaningless platitudes about standing firm against homophobia, the FA should have explained how damaging Steele’s remarks were to his own club. For like many league clubs, Oxford City is made up of over ten reserve and youth teams. It is highly probably that up to ten or so team members – perhaps vulnerable teenagers – would have felt isolated and outcast by such remarks. Such remarks are divisive, sow seeds of mistrust and ruinous for team spirit, and it is shameful that nobody thought to point this out.

And a final point about homophobia in the stands, especially for useful idiots like Arsenal fan Matt Lucas: if visitors to Brighton cannot see the cruelty of ridiculing the town for its accepting, tolerant atmosphere with chants of ‘We can see you holding hands’, perhaps club sponsors eventually will?

Even major sporting brands seek to promote values of diversity and inclusiveness nowadays, and distance themselves from old-fashioned ‘macho’ positioning. Brand-owners do not want to see their products being endorsed by narrow-minded homophobic and racist thugs on TV or, more likely, on YouTube.

If nothing else, perhaps the prospect of football’s reputation being dragged through the mire, might make the FA see the value, rather than just the cost, of promoting a diverse and inclusive game?