There are currently no openly gay footballers in the Premier League and English Football League. To put this in perspective, in its ‘Integrated Household Survey’ the Office for National Statistics asked 178,197 people which sexuality they identified with. 1.5% of people identified as being homosexual or bisexual. These statistics would suggest that of the 2,300 footballers across the 92 professional teams in England, around 350 of them are gay or bisexual, but are not willing to openly express their sexuality.
After a weekend in which the Premier League supported Stonewall’s rainbow laces campaign, and Richard Scudamore (Executive Chairman of the Premier League) stated there was “more that (they) can do to use the spirit and energy of the football on the pitch as a force for good off it”, there is still very little evidence that conditions in the stadiums and dressing rooms will, in the near future, change significantly enough for young men and women to be encouraged to come out.
The atmosphere in football stadiums can be testing for any player. Fans pick up on anything they can, to get an edge for their team. Incidences of racism around football grounds has decreased significantly, with this kind of discrimination found mainly in countries on the continent rather than here. But that is not to say this element of narrow-mindedness has been completely stamped out. Earlier this season, Manchester United fans were pulled up for a discriminatory chant about their own player Romelu Lukaku. Whilst the chant was clearly not used in a derogatory or abusive way, it shows that the education of football fans on this issue is still far from complete.
Put yourself in the shoes of a young gay man or woman, particularly in one of the top divisions. You are stuck in a situation where you think that having an open and honest relationship, would have serious consequences for your wellbeing and potentially as a result, your career. Whilst you would hope that your colleagues (teammates) would be supportive, there is almost a guarantee that the man or woman in the streets (the stands) would attack the very person that you are, to gain an advantage.
Gay and bisexual individuals in the game can not have been encouraged by trends of homophobic behaviour in the past in England, and currently in leagues across the world. Although now 27 years ago, Justin Fashanu was the subject of horrific abuse from fans and fellow players when he became the first professional footballer to come out as gay. In 2013, Robbie Rogers came out as gay whilst simultaneously retiring to avoid scrutiny (he has since returned to the game in the US).
Jesus Tomillero, Spain’s first openly gay referee has been subjected to death threats since he came out last year. FA Chairman Greg Clarke said he is “ashamed that players don’t have the confidence to come out”, adding that he was “cautious of advising people to come out until we’ve done our job”. What is not clear is what that “job” is going to entail, and whether it will finally mean that any footballer, no matter their creed, race, gender or sexual orientation will feel comfortable to live their lives the way that they want to in the public eye, without fear of upheaval. 70% of Premier League fans have said that they have heard homophobic language or chanting used in a stadium, and that with no openly gay people on the field of play. It is therefore no surprise that the fear of coming out far outweighs their desire to be who they are.The question is, what can be done to create an environment where these players feel comfortable to express their sexuality publicly? Firstly, all fans known to be involved in homophobic chanting of any kind should be banned from the stadiums they visit. There should be more done by the clubs themselves to promote equality. It is not good enough for a manager to wear a rainbow badge on his shirt for one game a season, or a player to wear different laces on his boots. The ‘Kick It Out’ campaign has done excellent work around the issue of racism, with the ‘Say no to Racism’ TV advert seen by millions of people around the world. It is time for a similar push towards an end to the bigotry surrounding sexuality. It will only take a few star players, managers or pundits to campaign for LGBTQ equality, along with some education of the ill-informed minority of football supporters, to create an atmosphere in stadiums conducive to complete openness.