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Still a straight man’s game: why is the Premier League still without an openly gay player?

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Chris Mandle
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Despite the rumours, Premier League football is still without an out gay player. Chris Mandle looks at why

Late last year, Manchester United’s Luke Shaw had an important announcement to make. The 20-year-old left-back took to Twitter and ‘came out’, following reports in the UK press that two Premier League footballers were preparing to identify as gay. But Shaw came out as heterosexual, declaring his sexuality with a blunt remark: “It’s not me, so everyone can shut up now,” he said, with a peace-sign emoji.

He wasn’t just being paranoid. A betting website had listed a number of high-profile footballers under “First England footballer to come out as gay” including John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and, yes, Luke Shaw. Shaw had the best ‘odds’ – although the betting company later admitted these odds were purely speculative – causing him to clear the air and set the record, er, straight.

The bleak publicity stunt put a bit of a downer on the real story. It had emerged earlier that week that a Premier League player and an England player were preparing to come out. They’d been consulting with the FA, their teams and teammates, and were planning on making the announcement in unison.

“The stigma has completely gone, and the public are far more accepting,” a league source told The Mirror. “The tide is turning, and more and more sports people are openly gay.” It helps that 2015 was a landmark year for the gay community. Equal marriage became legalised in the US, while Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise equal marriage by referendum. Both acts demonstrated a significant shift in people’s attitudes: if these changes to the law reflect public opinion, was the notion that a gay footballer would be ‘rejected’ by the football community now outdated?

If the stigma is reduced, and there are gay players in locker rooms across the country, then what does it take for them to come out? When will UK football ever feel safe enough for gay men?

Role models

“It’s important for gay men in the public eye to be open about their sexuality,” explains Darren Scott, editor of Gay Times. “It sends a clear message to thousands of people who still struggle with their sexuality. Whether they like it or not, that makes them role models.”

LGBT charity Stonewall says the only way to create any kind of positive change is to have more visible role models. “While we’ve seen increasing numbers of high-profile LGBT sports people in other sports, football has significantly lagged behind,” the charity said in a statement. “If players do decide to be open about their sexual orientation, this will lead to more people – including players at all levels and fans – feeling comfortable to do the same.”

No footballer has since said to me, ‘Robbie, thank you, I’m gay, too…’ I don’t know if anyone will.

Experience suggests, sadly, that the opposite might be true. The first instance of a footballer coming out was Justin Fashanu in 1990, but he suffered personal and professional setbacks following the announcement. As newspapers used his personal life as a conduit for scandal and gossip, his career plummeted. Eight years later, he killed himself. While Fashanu coming out was groundbreaking, his story has gone down in history as a cautionary tale; it looms over any dialogue about coming out in the football community. It didn’t inspire anyone to follow suit.

Years later, former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers came out in 2013, but only following his retirement from the sport. Though he eventually started playing again – he’s now a winger for LA Galaxy – at the time he told The Guardian he was aware of the difficulties surrounding his situation.

“We’re great actors because we’re afraid to let people know who we are,” he explained, when asked if he knew of any other gay footballers. “We’ve been trained by our agents how to do interviews. No footballer has since said to me, ‘Robbie, thank you, I’m gay, too…’ I don’t know if anyone will.”

Robbie Rodgers playing in a USA vs Mexico match, 2009

Support network

Public opinion has surely changed since Fashanu’s death. But has it changed enough to make gay men feel safe enough to come out? I posed the following question to a number of agents, managers and publicists: if one of your clients came into your office and said they wanted to publicly come out, what advice would you give them? What has to be taken into consideration?

“I’d advise against it,” admitted one publicist, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. “It sounds awful, but you have to weigh up whether [coming out] is worth the hassle.” They suggested it would be easier for a client to be “[the] third or fourth player”, but hung up when we suggested this attitude was part of the problem.

A common reaction from people within the football industry was simply that they didn’t know how to do it. How to help someone. How to protect them from abuse on and off the pitch.

“The FA and clubs have been supporting the message of anti-homophobia for years,” says Simon Rice, digital sports editor at The Independent. “I expect they would offer a huge amount of support for any player if they were to come out."

Rice says that, in his experience, the vast majority of fans would have no issue with an out player – in fact, they’d be supportive – but without a gay player present, the incentives aimed at tackling homophobia lack bite.

“When it comes to breaking down prejudices, the push has had less gusto. The lack of out players has certainly played a part. It’s difficult to show acceptance without visible figures on the pitch."

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore also thinks fan reaction would be positive. Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight, he said it would be “very strange” for there to not be a single gay player in the league, adding: “It would be welcomed and I think there would be a tolerance to it.” It’s a strangely confident stance.

“[Our job is to] advise them,” one publicist says, of their clients. “We help them figure out what they want to achieve in a number of things. If a player wanted to come out, we’d figure out the best way to do that with them and the people around them."

Justin Fashanu playing for Hearts

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Over the pond

In the US, things aren’t looking much better. When NFL player Michael Sam came out in 2014 at the age of 24, it was considered groundbreaking: as well as being the first openly gay professional American football player, Sam was relatively fresh into his NFL career, which was a stark contrast to other openly gay athletes – such as basketball player Jason Collins, who came out after his retirement.

The New York Times deemed it a new era for gay players: “There is no better moment than now to plough ahead,” they said proudly. Obama got in touch to personally congratulate him.

But following his announcement, Sam’s increased public profile only highlighted some of the bigger problems facing gay men in sports. Anonymous NFL executives told Sports Illustrated they expected him to be dropped after coming out, and they were sort of right; he was cut from the St Louis Rams, and didn’t last long at the Dallas Cowboys shortly after that.

ESPN was criticised for its reporting on his locker room shower habits, noting he chose to shower alone so as not to make his teammates feel ‘uncomfortable’, and after a stint in the Canadian NFL, Sam said he was “stepping away from the game for a time”, citing mental health concerns. It’s no surprise, though it is a little bleak, that Sam has subsequently said in interviews that he thinks coming out damaged his career permanently.

Lessons from rugby

How the UK will treat a gay football player is still speculative, but we can learn a lot from how we treat players from other sports. In rugby, for example, two players came out in 2015 alone: Batley Bulldogs captain Keegan Hirst and England Sevens player Sam Stanley.

Hirst says when he came out, “There was definitely a sense of community. Rugby league is a family sport, and a community sport. I’ve received messages 
from directors at other clubs, and random strangers on the internet. It’s like two communities finding common ground.”

Although at the time the Yorkshireman said he didn’t want to be a poster boy, he admits now he’s understanding the importance of having prolific, confident gay men in sports.

“You start getting congratulations messages, then people saying ‘thank you’. It became a bit less about me. Originally, I [came out] for myself, but it became apparent that it was important to other people, too.”

Stanley agrees, “I’m privileged to be able to speak up about something with such a stigma attached to it,” he says. “I had control over it. Even players you think are going to be quite strange with it have actually been the complete opposite. It’s awesome."

Both men are young, praised for their performances on the pitch and setting a powerful example to men everywhere. Their teams backed them, they had professional support and, speaking to them, they both seem extremely happy. How different could a footballer’s reception be, I ask?

“Everyone turns their attention to football,” Hirst says. “But… there might be gay players that just don’t want to make it public. I suppose it depends on the individual."

Keegan Hirst during a match for Batley Bulldogs

Out there

The consensus seems to be that everyone likes the idea of an out, gay football player in the UK. They just don’t quite know how to help them.

But last month, something interesting happened. Sports giant Adidas revealed it would be introducing a new “protective clause” in contracts for its athletes, stating they won’t be fired or lose sponsorship if they announce that they’re gay, bisexual or transgender. 

Given Adidas is a big player in countries where being gay is still illegal, this level of protection is impressive. It’s frustrating that it has to exist, sure, but if players such as Michael Sam and Justin Fashanu saw their career suffer because of their sexuality, this is groundbreaking. It’s exactly the kind of legal, financial protection that led to other gay athletes becoming marginalised.

Adidas, it should be noted, also signed diver Tom Daley as the face of the brand following his own coming out two years ago. A spokesman for Adidas told ShortList the company “supports all athletes’ rights to express their sexuality” and that “[we] hope that our initiative helps to make sport more inclusive”.

It’s something you couldn’t have dreamed about even a couple of years ago. But then progress, by its very definition, can be slow. Who knows who it will inspire next?