Rio Ferdinand says gay footballer was ‘advised not to come out’ by lawyer

Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand has told MPs of an exchange he had with a gay footballer who was advised to stay in the closet by a lawyer.

The former England captain and Manchester United defender gave evidence to a joint committee of MPs and peers on Thursday morning (9 September), which heard views on the draft Online Safety Bill designed to tackle the rise in online abuse.

Ferdinand spoke to the culture of homophobic harassment in football which means there are still no openly LGBT+ players currently competing in the English professional game.

“I’m shooting something around homophobia in football, and I’ve just met currently a player who had come out, and he was advised by a lawyer not to come out and speak,” he said.

“I initially said: ‘You need to come out and speak your truth and be proud of who you are.’ The reason why the lawyer advised him not to come out is because every individual is very different and you can’t use a blanket approach.

“[The lawyer] advised him based on his experience with that individual, and he didn’t think that he was strong enough mentally at that time, and have the right pieces in place to be able to withstand the media attention and the spotlight.”

The unnamed player went on to come out publicly several years ago; it’s unclear whether or not he is still playing.

Ferdinand went on to suggest the attention on men’s football meant it was unfair to compare it with how many openly gay athletes there were in other sports.

“The amount of eyeballs and the amount of attention and press pages that they’re going to get extra is so much more,” he said. “It’s about, ‘are you capable of coming out and being able to withstand that media attention?'”

The joint committee also addressed the prevalence of racial abuse and slurs, both online and at matches.

Rio Ferdinand told the panel it was “baffling” that social media companies had tools that track copyright breaches on, for example, his YouTube channel, but could not use that same technology to pick up certain emojis or words used in racially abusive posts.

He stressed that harmful content affected more than just the person who received it, saying: “I have seen members of my family disintegrate at times when it happens.”

“I have to sit there with my kids and explain what the monkey emoji means in that context,” Ferdinand added. He condemned the fact that perpetrators were allowed to remain anonymous online, saying it was “normalising racist behaviour”.

“If you put it in the context of a young person who supports a certain player at whatever level, he is looking through that feed and seeing racist language,” he continued.

“That young person then goes into his network of friends and ‘it’s fine, it’s normal so I’ll say that at school so it’s OK’. When there are no repercussions, there is nothing done to expose that person for their ignorant language, then people are going to think it’s normal.”