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COMMENT: Why is football behind the times when it comes to gay acceptance?

by Rob Dore | September 17, 2013

Paddy Power Right Behind Gay Footballers

By Rob Dore | #RGBF

It would be naive to believe racism has been eradicated from football. However, incidents such as that involving Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, rather than highlighting a rise in racist attitudes, actually displays an environment in the UK in which Evra, at least, felt he would have the support of his team-mates and club if he made a complaint.

In an ideal world there wouldn’t be any racism. But we won’t get caught up in heady idealism. Things are getting better. 30 years ago Evra would have suffered the abuse in silence.

Much like gay footballers do now.

The one obvious difference between racism and homophobia is that you can hide your sexuality far easier than your skin tone.

So they suffer in silence.

Society is changing

Not that either situation is preferable but it does help to explain how of the over 5,000 professional footballers in the UK not one of them is openly gay. With an average of 6% of the population being gay the chances of not having at least one gay man amongst that 5000 is a mind-boggling quadragintillion to one. You’ll have to look that number up but it’s big.

Even my basic maths skills allow me to work out that 6% of 5000 means there could be a possible 300 players who feel they have to lie about who they are to team-mates and friends. Just to play a sport.

With the passing of legislation to allow same-sex marriages in England and Wales in July of this year it is clear that the attitudes of society are changing for the positive when it comes to gay rights. So why is football falling behind the curve?

Don’t confuse banter with something else

Football, like many team sports, can be very insular. Homophobic slurs are used liberally in the dressing-room and on the terraces to denote weakness, often times in jest. The accepted importance of banter in the game sometimes allows offence to be passed as playfulness. If you’re a straight player then being called a ‘fag’ is easily laughed off. If you’re a gay player who is hiding his sexuality, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable coming out in this environment.

In January of this year the American player Robbie Rogers was released by Leeds United. Instead of moving to a new club on a free transfer he announced his retirement from the game at just 25-years of age. He then announced that he was gay. Stating this as the reason for his decision to quit football. After a positive reaction he is now back in America playing football for LA Galaxy.

So we know for certain that one year ago there was at least one gay footballer in the UK. The numbers suggest that there are far more. Unfortunately Rogers didn’t feel he could continue his career in England. Unfortunate because the step from none to that first one is going to be a big step. For the individual player and for the game.

This campaign is not about encouraging gay players to come out as much as it is about raising awareness that there are gay players and changing attitudes towards them. Changing the environment of football so players feel comfortable enough to come out as gay if they want to.

gareth_thomas_respect

A person’s sexuality makes no difference in sport

We have seen in other sports that a person’s sexuality has no impact on their ability to perform on the pitch. Gareth Thomas is a perfect example. A Heineken Cup winning, Lions captaining gay man. The issue is not whether or not a gay person is capable of competing at the highest level but how much more difficult their life is made by having to either hide their sexuality or having to deal with the ignorant opinions of others.

Sport, particularly team-sport, is inclusive by nature. A collection of individuals working together to achieve a common goal. Football, at its best, is a game of expression. Restricting an individual’s freedom to be open about something as core as their sexuality, even through careless banter, can only but restrict their ability to perform at their best. Repression doesn’t protect the team, it only damages it.

Rainbow Laces won’t solve homophobia

You don’t have to agree with someone’s lifestyle or beliefs to respect them. By the very virtue of their being brought in to existence through no design of their own, gay people have as much right to live a life that makes them happy as everyone else.

Wearing a pair of rainbow coloured laces isn’t going to solve homophobia in football. It is 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr told America of his dream of an integrated society where race was no longer an issue. These laces and the use of the Twitter hashtag #RGBF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) are another step in a process which is continuously worked on by LBGT rights organisations such as Stonewall.org.uk, who were founded in 1989. It is a bold attempt to create awareness and stimulate discussion.

The world is changing and football should too.

How do I get Paddy Power Rainbow Laces?

Read more about the campaign and our association with Stonewall.org.uk here

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