It may be 2016, but the Premier League is still eagerly awaiting the announcement of a current day professional of the men’s game that he is gay; an announcement many believe is simply a matter of ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’.
Justin Fashanu was the league’s first openly gay player, and Thomas Hitzlsperger came out soon after his retirement from the game. These are two very rare cases of players being open about their sexual orientation. Fashanu’s coming out in 1990 was the subject of much media attention that blighted his relationship with his brother John, such a relationship John admitted made life difficult for the pair. When allegations of sexual assault were made against Justin from his time in the United States, he concluded that he would never get a fair trial because he was gay, and subsequently committed suicide.
Yet ultimately, despite the FA taking steps to illustrate that it is safe for Premier League players to come out should they want to, what lies beyond their control is what is preventing players from doing so. The FA seems to be conducting an almost relentless mission to pluck a gay footballer out of the Premier League and envelope him in acclaim for all the publicity they are giving this cause. Naturally, it is a huge issue within football that would be historic should it occur. Nothing should be taken from this. However, is is a subject one cannot force, no matter how much money, time and effort is spent in trying to find it.
The BBC ran a survey this week which indicated 82% of sports fans would have no issue with a player of their team coming out. Yet on the opposite end of the scale, 8% said they would stop watching their team if they were represented by a gay player. It is this 8% that is more like to be the definitive factor in whether a sportsman is to come out. Over 50% of sports fans have indicated they have heard fellow fans target players with homophobic abuse, 51% have heard sexist abuse, and 59% have encountered racist remarks being shouted. All of which seems to generate a debate as to exactly why any player would want to come out if this is the reaction to be dished out by fans.
Players are the target for verbal abuse for any small mistake that annoys fans. Obscenities are shouted at the loss of possession, or even an injury issue that brings out the physiotherapist in every hardened spectator in the stadium. When thousands of voices are in the ear of one, it is hard not to listen. Referring back to the survey from the BBC, this would quite conceivably make any gay players a target for abuse by the masculine observers that fill out stadiums on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, thanks to the extensive development of social media, we find that abuse is not just shouted in choruses, it is spattered across the internet. The abuse is, of course, not all football-centred; a tweet directed at British Olympic diver Tom Daley, implied his ‘turning gay’ was the reason behind his efforts at Rio 2016 Games that ultimately fell short of expectations. Daley is an widely considered one of contemporary societies foremost figures of LGBT advocacy for young people since coming out in late 2015, yet is still targeted over his sexuality. Sportsmen and sportswomen of all disciplines develop a naturally thick skin against criticism over years of enduring it. But shouldering abuse for a personality detail beyond the control of human decision – as Daley does – may be a clear sign that the Premier League, and notably its more hyper-masculine supporters, is not ready to welcome a gay player into it, no matter how emphatically the FA insists that they are.
Paul Elliot estimated there to be a dozen closeted gay footballers in the Premier League during 2008. It is possible that he is right, but despite all efforts from the FA to insist it is safe to come out, envisaging such an occurrence may not be in sight for the foreseeable future at least.