Comment: The FA has a serious job of building trust with LGBT people

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The FA’s Michael Johnson’s change of attitude towards fighting homophobia may be credible, but moving on requires making amends and building trust with the people you hurt, writes Adrian Tippetts for

The Football Association’s new Inclusion Advisory Board couldn’t have got off to a worse start when it was revealed that one of its 10 newly appointed advisors, former Derby County defender and Birmingham city coach Michael Johnson, was revealed to have opposed fighting homophobia in football and declared homosexuality “detestable” in a 2012 BBC TV debate.

Almost as soon as the story broke, the FA rushed to Johnson’s defence, stressing the “long personal journey” he has undertaken in the two years since. So it comes as a surprise to find, among the messages of support from fans retweeted by the ex-player, the following, from Saturday evening.

“Fully back @jonsarno and think this is all a bit silly to drag up an innocuous quote. Quoted the bible that’s all. Lot worse out there!!!”

A basic requirement for anyone in a leadership role on inclusion policy would be the ability to put yourself in the position of the most vulnerable and prejudiced person receiving that message. From that perspective I can confidently say that Johnson’s comments are far from innocuous. It is exactly this kind of rhetoric that makes some 14-year-old, too afraid or unsure to talk to anyone about their sexuality, a little more insecure, a little more depressed, a little more ashamed. They make the closeted athlete a little less able to be open, contributing to the sum total of misery experienced by people like Robbie Rogers, who decided that the only way to be out was to be out of English football. They make the school bully or an abusive parent a little more justified and encouraged to harass or beat up that slightly different kid in the class, or throw their child out of the home. Comments like these cut to the bone, start family arguments and fights, kill self-esteem.

When interviewed by the Guardian, Johnson stated how his views have radically changed, through the workshops he’d been on. Michael Johnson regrets his comments and says he has come to a more enlightened viewpoint about LGBT people. That’s encouraging, but Johnson made those comments on national television. A “long personal journey” is not enough if your thoughtless comments caused hurt, especially if you’re on an equalities panel. You have to publicly acknowledge your mistake and reach out first to those most likely to be affected by your words. It would have been to Johnson’s credit if he had made a spontaneous statement about his changed views, for instance on his website, rather than wait to be exposed. He owes an explanation of what made him changed his mind, because it’s a journey he should be encouraging others to take too.

The FA, too, owes the LGBT community an apology and an explanation, for its unprofessional selection process. How on earth could the FA be oblivious to discriminatory comments made in the public domain, by someone being selected for a senior equalities and inclusion role? We have reason to ask whether supporting LGBT inclusion – or rather, supporting inclusion for all – was a mandatory requirement for taking a leadership role in ending discrimination within football. Just two weeks after his Big Questions appearance, Johnson was on a panel discussion about how sport can break down faith-related barriers, organised by Kick It Out. This was surely before Michael made any such ‘journey’.

Faith In Football – in danger of excluding non-believers?

Faith is listed as one of the six protected groups. How will this work? It’s fine to treat people of faith with respect, but respecting the beliefs themselves will lead to conflict. It is Johnson’s faith that stopped him from challenging his prejudices about sexual orientation. Some faith-based beliefs concerning homosexuality deserve ridicule, not respect (covered in more detail here). Some people of faith will be offended at the idea of out gay people. Who on the FA’s inclusion panel has the philosophical insight to strike the right balance?

The Faith In Football project is essentially a marketing exercise to get religious minorities involved in the game, and a way of promoting cohesion and understanding between people of different faiths. But why aren’t non-believers, who account for nearly 40 percent of Britons, included in this? There are information packs on Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism; it would also be appropriate to ensure understanding is raised about humanism, deism, atheism and agnosticism.

Media apathy

There is a suspicion that homophobia is not taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination. But there has been less incentive to do so anyway: our national broadcast media rarely question authorities in government, education and sport about their record on fighting homophobia.

The fact that Michael Johnson became news is testament to the potency of his words. The rhetoric was stinging and memorable enough for someone to alert the Guardian about this questionable appointment to the FA’s equalities board. A sensible decision, because that was the mainstream publication most likely to hold the association to account, as James Riach’s diligence in following up and his cogent commentary shows. Well done to the Independent for its coverage too. But there was no interest from the BBC News or BBC Sport, and Sky Sports just reproduced a Press Association announcement about the FA’s statement of support for Johnson, no questions asked.

This is no call to oust Johnson from his role.Johnson knows better, and is better than he was in 2012. Most probably, this jolt to the senses will give him incentive and encouragement to be the ambassador he aspires to be. If he means what he says, he’ll know that reconciliation cannot happen unless he listens and reaches out to those who do not find his comments innocuous. We wait with expectation.

But the FA has a serious job of building trust with LGBT people. So far, we see chaos and empty platitudes. Twice this week, the sum of £50 million appeared in news reports relating to two Premier League clubs. This is how much Manchester United is rumoured to be prepared to pay for a 20-year old Everton midfielder. It is the size of Chelsea’s overspend last year. Meanwhile, Kick It Out’s 2012 income was one percent of this figure, to cover all overheads, wages, and campaigns. The FA could put its money where its mouth is and give this overworked team the resources to do the job properly.

Adrian Tippetts is a commentator on LGBT issues and a public relations consultant. He is also a member of the executive council of the National Secular Society.