What Jake Daniels’ historic coming out interview with Sky Sports News can teach other media
And the handling of the young Blackpool FC star’s story continues to serve as example to a headline-hungry media of how to sensitively tell coming out stories, both in football and beyond.
Run at the top of the hour on Sky Sports News last May, the exclusive video interview with teenage up-and-comer Daniels – just 17 years-old and with mere minutes of first-team playing experience – hadn’t been trailed by the broadcaster before it was aired, but would immediately become the biggest national news story of the day.
“I feel like I am ready to tell people about my story,” Jake told Sky Sports News senior reporter Tim Thornton from the Blackpool FC club ground.
“I want people to know the real me.”
The reaction to Jake’s poised yet personal account of coming to terms with his sexuality while navigating the world of football was immediate and, vitally, overwhelmingly positive. As the news generated headlines both at home and abroad, England captain Harry Kane and Prince William were among those to send messages of support, while Daniels would later receive a congratulatory call from none other than Sir Elton John.
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The interview itself may have lasted just eight minutes, but for Sky Sports News’ Tim Thornton, the historic story had been months in the making following weeks of meetings with Jake, his family and Blackpool FC, as well as advice from groups like Stonewall and Sports Media LGBT+.
Tim first became aware of Jake’s still-nascent hope to share his sexuality with the world after being contacted by the young player’s agent Billy Bingham, who also happened to be a friend.
“My older brother is gay, so I felt the agent trusted me and felt I was the right person to go to with the story and to go through the process with, because he felt like I would have a really good understanding of it,” Tim tells PinkNews almost a year after he first drove up to Blackpool “on a dark January night” to meet Jake and his mum for the first time.
Of that first meeting with Jake, Tim recalls: “We had a really, really good conversation… He opened up a little bit, his mum opened up a little bit, it was actually quite emotional. I think we probably chatted for about an hour and a half.”
From the offset, Tim not only recognised the scale of the story but Jake’s potential vulnerability as a 17-year-old set to enter waters that had only previously been charted by the late Fashanu, whose own coming out on the front page of The Sun after years of rumours was scandalously presented alongside the sledgehammer headlines ‘I AM GAY’ and ‘Justin Fashanu confesses’.
Fashanu, who tragically took his own life in 1998, faced a fierce public backlash after coming out and later admitted his football career had suffered “heavy damage” as a result.
“[Sky Sports] didn’t want to say, ‘Right, you’ve decided to come out, let’s do [the interview] next week,’” says Tim as he reflects on early internal discussions about how to handle Jake’s coming out. “We felt it was important to give [Jake] the time, so we made a decision very early on that this wasn’t something we were going to rush.
“It was about putting him at the heart of this and making sure he was comfortable, happy and absolutely clear that it was something that he wanted to do.”
He continues: “[Director of Sky Sports News Mark Alford] was very clear that he wanted to do this properly, so there was never any pressure… Sky as an organisation wanted to make sure we did the right process and we made sure that Jake was at the heart of every decision we made.”
Tim adds with a grin: “[Jake] was sort of putting pressure on me to say ‘can we do it a bit quicker!’ because he was clear.”
The four months between that initial meeting and Jake’s public coming out saw Tim and Sky Sports help implement a rigorous support system around the young player, which included “making sure the aftercare was in place” ahead of the interview airing. Among the tight-knit group of people who were contacted for advice was freelance journalist and media consultant Jon Holmes, a former Sky Sports team member who founded advocacy group Sports Media LGBT+ five years ago.
While the press landscape has thankfully evolved since the days of Justin Fashanu’s coming out, many will be aware of articles that often appear in certain newspapers and on their websites featuring unnamed ‘gay’ Premier League footballers cast in full silhouette alongside anguished headlines about having to remain in the closet. Jon is critical of a culture that still holds sway in some tabloid media outlets that all-too-often places “sensationalism” rather than people at its heart, increasing pressure on LGBTQ athletes in the process.
“There’s a lot of disappointment in terms of the tradition of the media covering these stories – not necessarily with named players but with unnamed players, as to how they might potentially come out and the mileage that a lot of the media get from this topic in terms of the clicks and interest and rumours,” he tells PinkNews.
“There’s still something that’s very unusual about people in men’s football coming out in a public way, and of course anything that’s unusual to the media has the potential to be presented and framed in a way that is sensational, is unexpected, has a big ‘splash’ potential.
“That focus, that intensity, I think that the media can bring to something that’s so personal to you, that you’ve struggled with for so long in many instances… I think there’s the risk that the media could be in its haste to present the story as something unusual and unexpected can sometimes lose that sensitivity that it needs to show.”
Jon points out that sports journalists are increasingly recognising their vital role in engaging with diversity and inclusion stories rather than letting other news press “dictate the tone and the tenor of the conversation” around LGBTQ+ issues in sport. It’s a cultural shift that’s being spearheaded by broadcasters like Sky Sports, who sponsored the Sports Personality of the Year Award at the PinkNews Awards 2022.
In fact, it was one of Tim’s colleagues, Sky Sports presenter Jessica Creighton, who presented the 2022 award to Emily Bridges, the transgender cyclist who was blocked from competing by cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, and British Cycling last year.
Highlighting trans representation in newsrooms as another major hurdle to be tackled, Jon states: “We’ve still got a lot to do for people who are trans and non-binary – it’s of course an industry where those people are very, very under-represented and they have experienced a lot of difficulties.”
Jon’s involvement in Jake’s story saw him work with Tim and Sky Sports News to offer the player advice on how to handle any ensuing media reaction, as well as helping to co-ordinate education sessions with his Blackpool FC teammates ahead of the interview airing. He describes the involvement of the club’s welfare officer as “pivotal”.
In another break with normal process, Jake, who had little experience in front of the camera, was interviewed by Tim alongside his mum as a “trial run” of sorts.
“There were loads of little details along the way where we tried to make sure that the whole process was one that made it easier for him” remembers Tim, who admits he endured a few “sleepless nights” as the intricate support plan was put into place.
“Everybody’s got to live with what happens next: even me as a journalist, I’ve got to live with what happens next, so if it’s a negative experience, that would be really difficult,” he says.
“From my point of view, I didn’t do it lightly: I thought a lot about it and I wanted to really make sure that three months down the line, Jake was in a better place than before he’d come out.”
Just days before Jake’s coming out interview was set to air, potential disaster struck: a tabloid had got wind of the story and ran a typically shrill headline teasing that a male professional footballer was set to imminently come out as gay. Tim describes having Jake outed before he was ready as a potential “worst-case scenario” – but the teen remained resolute in his desire to press ahead.
Jon notes that the fact that Jake didn’t panic or back out as tabloid sharks began to circle is “testimony to all the hard work that Tim put in and the team back at [Sky Sports News]”, adding: “I think the ultimate thing is trust, and Jake obviously felt like he was being looked after well, that he was getting good advice.”
Tim explains how the care of Sky Sports News even came down to how Jake’s coming out interview was presented on television screens across the country.
“There were lots of subtle things that we did in terms of how we broke the story, for example there was nothing on the yellow ticker; it was never ‘breaking news’. It’s little things like that, because we didn’t want to sensationalise it. It just appeared as the top story at 5 o’clock.
“We didn’t do it as ‘breaking news’ because we didn’t feel that was the right thing to do. We tried to get the subtle details right in the way we presented the story.”
Tim and Jon both highlight how since the initial rush of interest, the media has largely left Jake to pursue his footballing goals. Tim says Jake’s lack of subsequent press appearances was a “deliberate” move to minimise any possible “media circus” around the news.
Despite his years of breaking stories in football, Tim cites Jake’s coming out story as “far and away the most rewarding thing” he’s worked on – and one that took on a great personal significance too.
“I think [my brother] was quite proud. I know he had a difficult time when he was growing up, so for me it is important to represent him as well,” he says, adding with a chuckle: “To see him proud of the way that I’ve done it as well, that was really, really rewarding, because it’s not often that he says he’s proud of me!”
Less than four months after Jake’s interview with Tim aired, Gala Fairydean Rovers player Zander Murray became the first Scottish senior footballer to come out as gay – perhaps evidence of how empathetic journalism makes easier for LGBTQ athletes to share their stories and break new ground for their sport.
“That was one of the motivations for me – I wanted to make a difference”, concludes Tim, who when we speak is still in Qatar reporting on the FIFA World Cup 2022 for Sky Sports News, a broadcaster that heavily covered the country’s poor LGBTQ+ rights record during the tournament.
“I wanted to make a difference to Jake, I wanted to make it easier for other players who might want to come out in the future. I wanted to make it more inclusive for supporters, so that was a massive part of the motivation for me to do this story, to do it well, for it to land in the right way and be a positive experience for everyone involved.
“I’m not going to make a difference on my own but if I can play a small part in making football more inclusive, that’s probably one of the biggest things I’ll ever do in my career.
“Hopefully, in the future, Jake will make a difference and we might not be having these conversations in five years’ time.”
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