Comment: The loss of Robbie Rogers should shame football into action

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Fears for the wellbeing of an out gay footballer may be overrated, but Robbie Rogers’ retirement shows we’ve been spectators to bigotry and stupidity for too long, writes Adrian Tippetts for

On Friday 15th, a bolt came from the blue, briefly lighting up the world’s newswires, before disintegrating. Like the meteor that rained down on Russia that day, the football career of Robbie Rogers, over way before its time, was on collision course: the reality of his world would inevitably collide with a culture where gay people are made to feel as outcasts.

Football was Robbie’s life. What would motivate an international player to pursue other opportunities outside the game in the first place, if football was everything he dreamed of? The heart of the matter is buried within the fax in which he simultaneously came out and left the game that Friday morning: “Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love.”

Maybe, instead of rushing off to do poster campaigns and third-rate videos with no reference to LGBT people, the above philosophy should be the starting point for the FA’s campaign to ‘tackling homophobia’? For all the commitments by governing bodies, Robbie’s retirement is a sign that the FA has failed to make the game an accepting place for LGBT people. The culture of the game told him his destiny was either the impossible, destructive feat of hiding who he is from the rest of the world, or facing the prospect of ridicule and rejection. That he thought he had to choose between life or football is an indictment not just on the minority who gleefully express their hate on the terraces, but on the majority of fans, staff and sponsors who are passive spectators to it, or pass it off as ‘banter’.

I don’t believe Robbie needed to make that choice – the reactions to his coming out prove this – but if we want to change things, we need to promote and protect the visibility of LGBT people at all levels of the game and take a more aggressive stance against bigotry. This project involves the sponsors and the CPS as much as it involves the FA, the clubs and the fans.

The situation in the stands

Yes, the majority of football fans are well-meaning people, but that in itself is no comfort. It takes just a few loudmouths to get a chant spreading like a Mexican wave and echoing around the stadium. Laws of group psychology take over and once the chanting reaches a critical mass, anything is excused. Search for bloggers’ reports on homophobic chanting at Brighton Hove Albion and Watford to see how bad it gets. In September 2011, a football blogger and Leicester City fan Ryan Hubbard gave a vivid description of homophobic chanting that continued relentlessly throughout a match from fellow fans aimed at supporters of the visiting side, Brighton and Hove Albion.

He states: “But it wasn’t long before their chant of “Sea-Sea-Seasiders” was transformed into a less-than-witty retort of “Shit-shit-shit stabbers” by a small section of the home crowd.”

“Over the course of the first half, the moronic chants continued to head in the direction of the visitors, ranging from “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” to screaming “get up, you poof!” at a Brighton player, whilst down on the floor with an injury… It’s also a worry that by singing such despicable chants, it is condoning such behaviour to younger fans. There were kids chanting in the crowd, who must have been no more than nine-or-ten years old; already a new generation converted to social ignorance and sexual discrimination.”

Banter: jeering the acceptance of LGBT people

Hubbard explains that while most were incensed, a large number dismissed the chants as “just a bit of banter”. “We can see you holding hands” sounds like harmless fun. Behind it is the belief that being gay and showing affection is something to be laughed at. Gay people really do get singled out for abuse and assault precisely for holding hands in public.

Brighton is to be ridiculed because a lot of gay people live there. Why is that any more funny than the large Asian populations in Bradford or Leicester, or the Jewish links to Tottenham? Gay people are more visible in Brighton because it provides a safe and accepting space for gay people to be out in the first place.

Are these supposed fans so stupid as to think that gay people only exist in Brighton and Soho? Their chants are likely to be as damaging to players and supporters of their own club, not just Brighton’s. Above all, it is young people we need to think of most in this conversation. The kind of ‘banter’ is the last thing adolescents coming to terms with their sexuality need to hear. An ongoing survey by The Metro Centre suggests that people become aware of being LGB from the age of 14, and that it takes on average another two years to come out. Nearly three quarters of respondents said they needed emotional support during this period. Like many league clubs, Leicester City has several youth teams besides its First Team. For every 150 players in the Academy, then about a dozen or so may be gay, bi or questioning. To such people a joke that might seem funny to grown adults could be the difference between feeling accepted and wanting to burn the shirt and all connections with the game

When is banter OK?

Ridiculing something that is part of your nature – race, sex, sexuality, disability – is wrong. Admittedly, among friends, boundaries get pushed, but there are rules. Mickey-taking is alright provided you show vigilance against causing offence or distress, you give as much as you take and you are able to show unequivocal support when it matters. Looking at the apathy to homophobic comments on this Leicester City supporters’ forum that is not the case. And you can’t possibly know what gay people on the receiving end of the ‘banter’ have been through. No fair viewpoint, then, could call the chanting well-meaning.

What is the FA doing to stop this or to educate people about what is and isn’t good-natured? How many match day programmes have carried an article on this? The authorities should be ensuring homophobic chanting receives the same penalties as racism. If those Leicester fans had chanted racist abuse to the same extent, the club would be calling a press conference to apologise to the nation and launch an investigation, the FA would be fining the club and deducting points and trawling through video footage. In the above case, there was a pitifully short statement from the FA calling for more to be done and that was that.

Football could take a great leap in the direction of civility with the presence of LGBT supporter factions fearlessly being seen and heard at matches. Clubs should encourage this and make reference to their contact details on their websites, if they are serious about being there for the whole community. LGBT fans should get groups together, wear rainbow badges, incorporate a pink design into flags or banners, start a chorus of ‘Gay and City till I die’. Put your fellow fans’ claim of friendly banter to the test.

At club level: promote accepting difference

Accepting differences is essential if football is going to thrive, as NFL star Chris Kluwe says: “Gay, straight, black, white, brown, red, tall or short — the essence of every good locker room is sticking by each other no matter what. Having each other’s backs. Supporting those around you, because you know they’ll support you in return.”

It’s sometimes said by straight people, in an effort to sound right-on, that ‘it’s no-one else’s business’ if a friend is gay or not. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Our loved ones’ well-being is our business. We rely on our friends to encourage, support and advise us in our relationships. If you can’t even tell your team-mates what you got up to at the weekend, there is no honesty, there is no trust. There can be no true team spirit in this situation.

Given that the changing room can be a harsh place, the FA should be training staff or at least providing toolkits on how to deal with homophobic bullying and situations where a player needs to talk about coming out. It’s in the club’s interest to ensure its members are unburdened with personal worries, and that they don’t have to hide who they are. Are there sanctions against managers and trainers for homophobic attitudes and language? Bigger clubs should make more formal diversity training programmes like those employed by the Armed Forces mandatory.

There are several gay friendly football clubs, some of which play in local leagues, providing real case studies on the breaking down prejudices about gay men in sport. Stonewall FC, Village Manchester, the London Titans are examples, and they did it with little help from the FA. Mostly, their experiences have been positive. But occasionally, teams like these face abuse on the pitch. The FA must involve these clubs in their campaigns. One London team reported facing homophobia throughout a match in a local league last autumn. The club complained to the league, but no attempt has yet been made to investigate. Again, why is the FA acting like mere spectators to bigotry?

Don’t live for others more than you’d expect others to live for you

The adverb ‘openly’ to describe ‘gay’ should be, as redundant as ‘wet’ is to water. Robbie’s career is a lesson for other gay people in the game should not live. He feared coming out to his ‘loved ones’ because he believed they might abandon him if they knew he was gay. His dreams were extinguished by the realisation that living in the closet is a pitiful, destructive existence. He was wrong to fear rejection by others, not just because you cannot fear what you can’t control, but because he never allowed anyone to know or accept the real Robbie in the first place. And if they don’t accept you for who you are, the sooner you know, the better. Youth after reaching maturity lasts only 700 weeks. To waste any one of those weekends with people who do not want to know the real you is a precious waste of time you will never have back. If you cannot trust those closest to you, what is the point of their company? Jettison them. Have self-respect. Don’t live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

Fear of being out overrated

There is too much hysteria about a player ‘coming out’, when the argument should be about not hiding who you are. Times have changed and the fear of being out is overrated. The experience of Justin Fashanu as a guide to what will become of an out gay player is of zero relevance today. The tabloids don’t launch witch-hunts against gay people like they used to. The law gives gay people full protection. Attitudes have shifted tremendously, as the debates on marriage equality show.

The basis for Robbie’s fear, rejection by team mates evaporated in a deluge of support from players and commentators from around the world, including several former team mates. Look at America’s NFL league for inspiration: unequivocal big league players such as Brendan Ayanbadeyo and Chris Kluwe pounce on any hint of homophobic language and vociferously campaign for the equality of their LGBT friends. We need to hear more uncompromising support from football players here. They should be joining with groups like Football v Homophobia, Kick It Out, the Justin Campaign, not just leaving it to LGBT groups.

Internet is a game changer

Social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and discussion forums – give hope for a more accepting attitude driven by the grass roots. Any player who becomes the target of abuse today is unlikely to suffer silently like Sol Campbell or Graeme Le Saux. It takes one abusive tweet to ruin a career, as Oxford United player Lee Steele found out. It’s good to see authorities taking action. It takes one tweet calling for help and a player subject to hate would be overwhelmed with supportive messages all the way up to 10 Downing Street.

The interactivity of football fan forums puts the bigots on the defensive, when they are challenged to explain why they believe what they believe. A short search of football supporters’ discussion forums, like Sheffield Wednesday site Owlstalk, and you find a cesspit of  innuendo of the kind pumped out by the thankfully deceased Bernard Manning or the Sun from 30 years ago, interspersed with occasional messages of extreme hate. Some hope though: a fair number of commenters are challenging and condemning that hate. It’s a start, but there needs to be more of it.

Get the yobs on YouTube

Arguably, the pressure would be on the crowd more than a gay player. All it takes is for footage of some yob, spouting hate in team colours, with the brand name of the sponsors emblazoned over his chest, to go viral. Don’t believe everything you are told about the Daily Mail: anything to fit their narrative of yob Britain would be ideal for the second most viewed newspaper website in the world. It is the gay-hating yob whose life is likely to be ruined, not the footballer’s.

Also, brand owners want to ensure their products embody values such as inclusiveness, fair play. They would run a mile if there was any hint of being associated with bullying and thuggery. League football would not be possible without their financial backing. They have a responsibility to clean up the game and the community at large must make them realise it.

What matters most is the unequivocal support of your family and of your team. If you have that, and in an age when homophobia is taken seriously by the media, abuse from fans would hurt less, provided you knew all involved were bringing the yobs to justice.

International football bodies don’t inspire: their approach to dealing with racism is pitiful. Their determination to pursue Tom Ince and Steven Caulker sends a message that racist intimidation pays. FIFA’s selection of Qatar and Russia as World Cup host nations shows a disregard not only for LGBT people, but human rights in general. But such an appalling decision is a symptom of an opaque, corrupt dictatorship, run by dinosaurs, which needs purging.

Get back on the pitch Robbie

Robbie has helped make football a more inclusive game by giving a first-hand account of how gay people feel treated, and the harm caused by hiding a most central aspect of his identity. But I can’t help feeling that by leaving the game, Robbie is making a mistake.

Frank Klopas, head coach of Chicago Fire, the club that owns the rights to Rogers’ contract, is adamant that he could return to the game. I hope Klopas succeeds. Robbie’s presence on the pitch, now, could have inspired a new generation of young LGBT people. They could be learning that their dreams, too, can come true, and that they have every right to pursue them. His walking away will probably entrench pessimism.

To hell with coming out, just be

He says he is leaving football to join a new menswear brand as a senior partner. Imagine the values he could be injecting into the Halsey brand by staying in the game a while: fearlessly confronting adversity; daring to stand alone; defying taboo; self-respect; integrity; the pioneer; the maverick; the trailblazer. A player who is seen to be cool, confident and comfortable and uncaring about the reaction of others would likely be hot property to sponsors who aspire to associate their brands with such values too. Maybe this gives a clue as to how a high-profile player should ‘be’, rather than ‘come out’.

Live ‘as if’ showing affection for your loved one, or talking about your sexuality, were the natural, normal, unsurprising thing to do. Take the support and solidarity of your players and trainers for granted. Team cohesion and performance depends on your own well-being, too. To hell with the what the crowd thinks. It’s unlikely you’ll face a baying mob but if you do, make it your business to mobilise a feeling of disgust, not only at the vile scum who incite hatred, but at any failure to investigate it. Assert who you are, don’t admit it.  Don’t bother with dramatic press announcements on your sexuality. Resist the daily newspapers’ offers of exclusives for your life story. You’re a warrior, not a victim. If you come across as a tad arrogant, the reality of what comes naturally to you insists you to be so.  If ever you have to choose between a lived life and a career, choose life. A man’s character is his fate.

Don’t crash and burn: be a guiding star.