“At times it gets malicious and you think, ‘okay, I’m never coming out now.’” On becoming only the second ever professional footballer to announce publicly his homosexuality, the 25 year-old American Robbie Rogers gave a number of lengthy interviews to a medley of media outlets. But for the hours of explaining that he did so bravely in his whirlwind week, that one sentence stood out amongst all others. With those few words, Rogers highlighted how elementary the issue of homophobia is within the game of football. The problem is no longer so much to do with the deep-rooted prejudices of society, but simply lies in what too many of us would consider as inconsequential playground banter. More to the point, Rogers’ honesty and insight into his own personal strife would seem to indicate that a relatively low-key new programme implemented at Liverpool football club last week has far greater importance to the future of the game than its under-the-radar release may suggest.
Luis Suarez may be causing the Merseyside club enough anxiety with his transfer rumblings at the present moment, but the Reds’ recent outlawing of certain ‘unacceptable’ words and phrases was a nod to the troubles the striker has caused them in the past. Inevitably, the small amount of media coverage that there was for the new scheme centred upon its racial element given the difficulty the club ran into last season regarding Suarez and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. The more liminal part, however, lies in the branding of commonplace homophobic banter as ‘unacceptable.’
English football can be rightly proud of the strides it has taken in tackling racism within the game and the regrettable incidents of last season are becoming less and less frequent in occurrence. Its success stands in stark contrast to the stagnant progress with regards to homophobia; whilst England leads the way in Europe in its attitudes towards racism it is still sadly backwards both on the terraces and within the changing room in its support of gay footballers.
The sad fact is that there are 5,000 professional footballers in England and not one of them is openly gay. The LGBQT charity Stonewall has found that over 70% of fans have heard homophobia at football matches in the UK in the last 5 years. Undoubtedly this played a part in Rogers’ decision to retire from English football and instead return to the States where he began the 2013 season playing for LA Galaxy. In that same interview for CNN Rogers was asked whether the coaches joined in with the gay jokes. He answered simply, ‘well in England, yes.’
Even more shocking was the admission from PFA Chairman Clarke Carlisle that the organisation’s PR executive Max Clifford had met with well over a dozen anonymous gay footballers in England and had strongly advised them that going public was not an option. The seriousness of the problem is both incontestable and remarkable for the relative lack of attention that it receives. We are kidding ourselves if we think that this country does not have a particular problem.
The comparison between campaigns against racism and campaigns against homophobia is a striking one. The resources and publicity which the FA pours into its anti-racism campaigns far outstrips its support of gay footballers and there is no reason for this to be the case. Everyone has heard of the very public and in many ways successful ‘Let’s Kick It Out’ campaign, but few will have heard of ‘Football vs. Homophobia’, to which the FA only gave its backing in 2012.
For it to have taken so long for the FA even to lift a finger in support of the issue is indicative of the general apathetic approach that the governing body has taken. When the FA launched its support of the campaign, they were branded as ‘dinosaurs’ by John Amaechi, the first openly gay former NBA player, who criticised the FA’s lack of proactivity and their ineffective policy of ‘posters and platitudes’. Amaechi’s point was that ingrained attitudes and bigotry could not be changed through a barrage of publicity and that the FA needed to direct more of its resources towards educating the game from within.
But having listened to Rogers, Carlisle and many others, it seems that what football really needs are more openly gay players who can confront prejudice and pave the way for others to follow suit. It is unlikely that Amaechi nor anyone else would disagree with this, but what Rogers and the support groups seem to argue is that it is low-level banter and jibes which, although not necessarily a reflection of personal beliefs, are preventing players from going public. Whilst Amaechi’s views cannot be ignored, perhaps he is too quick to dismiss the effectiveness of such ‘posters and platitudes.’
What the ‘Let’s Kick It Out’ campaign has done so successfully in its publicizing of its cause is to attach a strong stigma to any kind of racist behaviour, be it in the stands or on the pitch, so that when it does occur, there is an immediate reaction against it by those on the scene. Such a stigma simply does not surround homophobic behaviour, which reduces the effectiveness of the FA’s recent measure to allow the prosecution of fans charged with homophobic chants. It does not seem all that likely that a fellow fan would report another for such an act, simply because it is so commonplace. The figure that 70% of fans have come across homophobic behaviour at football matches is a little surprising; it is surely a much higher percentage, only that most do not seem to notice it given that is so unremarkable.
It needs to be drilled into players and fans alike that such behaviour is actually harmful and following some of the methods used by the anti-racism campaigns would be a good place to start. Armbands and T-Shirts need to be worn by players and advertising boards branding the campaign’s name should start to appear. Clearly this alone is insufficient and there is still educational work to be done, but such a presence would make fans think twice before throwing out a homophobic heckle or at least encourage others to step in when they do. Perhaps then an environment can be created where footballers begin to feel more comfortable with their sexuality.
More clubs need to follow Liverpool’s lead to eradicate this low-level bigotry, for its jocular intentions belie its harmful repercussions. 2013 could be the year to start, following in the wake of the new marriage laws and the drive for equality that has created. In an otherwise dire video that accompanied the announcement of the FA’s support of ‘Football vs. Homophobia’ one truism could be found amongst a plethora of platitudes that would have sent Amaechi round the bend. Football has the capacity to take a lead in society and change values far beyond 7,000 square metres of grass. It remains to be seen whether the FA can turn those words into action.