Friday, 21 September 2012

Homophobia and Football - Any Chance of Change?

Gareth Thomas did it for rugby, Steven Davies strolled proudly out of the closet for cricket in March offering advice to anyone else who wanted to follow suit so what about football? There isn’t a single soul singing heartily from the stadium rooftop, naked and clad in the rainbow flag. There are no gay professional footballers playing in the English or Scottish leagues. Right? A Family Fortunes-style buzzer sounds and a big fat NO lights up in neon but where there is no official evidence. Tabloid exclusives or invites to coming out parties fit for a £120,000 a week footballing king cannot be seen on the horizon and may not be for some time yet. Football has seriously missed the boat in the ‘gay is OK’ societal evolutionary stakes and homophobia has it’s own DNA strand firmly embedded in the cellular make-up of the beautiful game, some serious genetic engineering will be required to make changes.

Homophobic chants have been outlawed at football stadiums since the 2008/09 season. If found guilty, fines of up to £1000 may be imposed plus ground bans of up to 10 years. In 2010 Rugby League, Castleford were fined £40,000 for their fan’s foul-mouthed treatment of Gareth Thomas. Two sports, two very different punishments. It isn’t like the Football Association aren’t trying to make changes, they held a summit in 2005 where Dutch delegate Ben Baks proffered praise for being the first European federation to address the issue of homophobia. That same year saw the BBC commission a survey in which all 20 managers in the Premier League refused to comment. The FA have been backing the Justin campaign since 2010 and are partnered with the Gay Football Supporters Association, their efforts don’t seem like a shot of token support. The anti-homophobia video produced in conjunction with Ogilvy was 2 years in the making and stars a man bearing a striking resemblance to one of Graham-’Inn't he scrummy-Duff’s Ideal characters, Psycho Paul. The video delivers a straight-forward message to fans but received mixed reviews in the gay community. They even had the cheek to cancel the premiere screening saying ‘they needed more time to work on the project’!

On paper and in politics it looks like waves are churning when it comes to tackling homophobia, but only with the fans; Aston Villa were the first football club to setup a gay fanzone and Manchester City set their stall out in 2006 when they joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, which supports employers in keeping sexual-orientation predjuces out of the workplace. Manchester City no longer feature on the members list, paying the £2000 a year subscription can’t be a problem, it’s not like their new owner is short of a few billion fat banks rolls in his pocket. In 2010, Jonathon Fear, award-winning editor of the Vital Villa website published an anonymous survey with a landslide 93% of replies stating there is no place for homophobia in football, around 2000 people responded in 2 weeks.

Fans, journalists and back-room staff are pushing, responding and proactively working on the football vs homophobia campaign but players and managers will rarely even bleep a word on the subject. It could be that players may fear losing endorsements but this isn’t the 1970s where Bille-Jean King was stripped of all her sponsorship deals the minute she broke her love-for-the-ladies news to the world. fear of bad reactions from fellow players is probably the biggest problem, team sports are intense enough without abuse tipping the dynamic overboard. Imagine if Frank Lampard dived out of the closet, slid across the field on his lean and well-oiled torso then leapt up with a click of the heels declaring ‘I’m gay’ at the top of his voice. Apart from breaking Christine Bleakley’s heart, it would release an industrial-sized firework display of tabloid publicity and bolster his bank balance with a string of heartfelt interviews in every media vehicle known to man.

If one high-profile footballer came out with the same dignity and style of Gareth Thomas and Steven Davies surely the floodgates would open. Only then could the the real work of changing people’s attitudes begin because homosexuality would be a reality in the beautiful game. At the moment, the only connection men’s football has with gayness is with the vitriol spouted by the minority of ignorants on the sidelines, apart from that, the issue is sub-terranean. Ashley Cole has a team of lawyers ready, willing and able to sue anyone who even dares mutter a slur on his precious heterosexuality, Max Clifford advised two well-known stars who he ‘looks after’ to keep their sexuality under wraps because football “is in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia”, to come out after retirement is far more likely. The dynamic of bi-sexuality and the homophobes is one to be considered too, with some, sexuality is fluid and it is quite likely there is a good handful of sportsmen and women who slide up and down the scale of sexual preference. How the critics react to these revelations remain to be seen. Not a player or manager was in sight when the FA launched their video campaign, Elton John donated high-profile support but that isn’t exactly going to encourage professional sports stars to come out, only young peers will do. If a huge brand launched a ‘coming out’ advert where several high profile footballers, along with other gay sports stars emerged in Guinness-style splendour that could be a stroke of corporate genius; deflecting the ignorant fallout and opening up the valuable pink pound market.

We no longer live in a society full to the brim of Brian Clough-types but football does. The general public are ready for change and even if some are not (and some will never be), the attitudes to homosexuality in cricket, rubgy and individual sports very much follows the yellow brick road to breaking down predjuces and from this, everyone can learn. England and Lancashire swing bowler James Anderson, straight and married, (sorry), posed for Attitude magazine saying he didn’t believe there was any homophobia in cricket and invited anyone who wanted to castigate his comments to “take their best shot”. Hear that football? That is real mans talk. If the stars who appear in the magazines publicly support their would-be outed gay and bi-sexual colleagues more little steps will be made in the uphill marathon towards equality. Validation and solidarity is so important when facing head-on the ever-morphing wall that is homophobia.