Date: 19th February 2011 at 2:44pm
Written by:

Today marks football v homophobia day. This is a scheme devised by the Justin Foundation- so named after the only openly gay footballer in the history of the game Justin Fashanu- and supported by the Football Association. The FA`s General Secretary Alex Horne commented: “The FA and its stakeholders have worked hard over the years in providing football for all and ensuring that football stadia are open to everyone and are both family and LGBT friendly.

‘We`ve seen real progress over the last 20 years when it comes to tackling racism and that`s something football should be proud of. We also remain committed to our long-term goal of removing discrimination, such as homophobia, out of the game.” Campaigners today began the day in the Millennium library in Norwich to see an exhibition on Justin Fashanu with members of Justin`s family, Norwich directors and LGBT campaigners from the Norfolk area. All very laudable, but just how far has football got to go before it can justifiably claim to be tackling homophobia? Platitudes and sound bites from the F.A. supporting someone else`s initiative are all well and good, but how far are the authorities actually going to combat this ugly form of prejudice from the game?

We can all agree that in England, great work has been done to all but eradicate overt racism from the country`s football grounds. It is no longer a typical part of the match day experience to hear monkey noises and accept grown men hurling bananas onto a football pitch. But homophobia is a more silent assassin in the sport. For a start, a gay footballer is not immediately visible to us in the same way that a black footballer is. Gay people are incredibly visible in other arenas of entertainment; openly homosexual comedians such as Graham Norton and Julian Clarey are commonplace on prime time television. Gay musicians such as Elton John and Michael Stipe still shift albums in the millions. But of course the arts have always had a more liberal streak in comparison with the more macho environs of competitive sport. It doesn`t have the same tribalism attached to it. One could not imagine thousands of gig going punters screaming abuse at Stipe, trying to put him off as he thunders through “It`s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But whilst racism has been marginalized, there still exists a separatism with sexuality in football, we convince ourselves the issue is not really there, that homosexuals do not exist, either as players or as supporters. On the issue of homophobia, it`s my belief that football still has its fingers in its ears and it`s eyes tightly shut.

Other sports seem to have awoken from their slumber on the issue. Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas came out last year. (At 6 foot 3 and 15 stone, I would like to see someone call him a “poof” to his face). In NBA former Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic star John Amaechi came out as openly homosexual in the late 1990s. Even in the deeply Catholic environment of the Gaelic Games, hurler Donal Og Cusack felt able to come out. In 2009, squaddy Ben Rakestrow, who served in Afghanistan, admitted to the tabloids that he was gay. To this day, the only footballer that has ever publicly come out, Justin Fashanu, committed suicide in March 1998. Sheer statistics show you that it is not remotely conceivable that Fashanu is the only homosexual ever to play professional football. Indeed, just looking at the numbers in the current top flight, there has to be a few gay footballers. So why do none of them feel comfortable enough to make their sexuality public? PR slime ball Max Clifford even claims that he has two clients that are Premiership footballers whose homosexuality he is helping to conceal from the press.

In an interview with Attitude magazine in February 2010, Gareth Thomas, Wales` most capped ever rugby international, was asked why it homosexuality had become such an anathema in football. “If there`s a footballer who is thinking of coming out, then everyone needs a shove in the right direction. But I want people to do it because they want to. I wasn`t pressurised (to come out) I did it because I was ready.” Thomas went on to admit that football`s more working class leanings and greater media coverage might make it more difficult for a footballer than a rugby player. Thomas also told Attitude that, in his first media announcement on his sexuality, he had spoken to the Daily Mail about Justin Fashanu but the Mail did not print his comments. Perhaps the case of Fashanu is instructive and points to why footballers do not feel they can come out in this way.

Justin Fashanu began his career in the late 70s and came through the ranks at Norwich City, scoring freely until he caught the eye of Brian Clough in 1981, who paid £1m to bring him to Nottignham Forest. The price tag came with its own pressures, being as it made Fashanu the first ever million pound black footballer. Fashanu began to arouse suspicion inside the game as rumours spread that he was a regular client at gay bars and saunas. Clough began to bully him relentlessly about his lifestyle, teasing him about “them poof clubs” in front of his team mates. Clough even banned him from training altogether when he found out Fashanu was homosexual. As a result, Fashanu`s confidence drained and the goals dried up. His career began to lose momentum and he bumbled around a number of different clubs. Then in October 1990, he gave an interview in the Sun newspaper confirming that he was gay, even going as far as to allege an affair with a Tory MP. Fashanu quickly found himself outcast in the game. His brother, Wimbledon striker John, branded him “an outcast in football.” He found himself openly criticised by colleagues and team mates. Leading Afro-Caribbean newspaper The Voice was most visceral in its condemnation, calling Fashanu, “An affront to the black community…damaging….pathetic and unforgiveable.” One would have thought a newspaper that had set itself up as a retort against prejudices suffered by its own community would be more empathetic.

Fashanu struggled for form and began struggling to find clubs that would take him. Whether this was a consequence of his lifestyle or his lack of form is open to conjecture. However, in late 1991 when he began a bizarre, if short lived, relationship with Coronation Street actress Julie Goodyear, all of a sudden Torquay United gave him a contract, where he began banging in the goals again. He made his way up to Scotland with Airdrie before the attention of Hearts was piqued. However, the Edinburgh club terminated his contract when it was found that he had attempted to sell false stories about sexual liaisons with Cabinet ministers. Fashanu went to Canada and then to the States to see the twilight of a controversial career into its last days. In March 1998, a 17 year old boy in Mayland, where Fashanu was living, accused him of sexual assault. The local press reported that the police had a warrant for Fashanu`s arrest on a count of second degree sexual assault. Justin fled back to his hometown of Shoreditch, fearing the wrath of the local feds. Tragically, the press reports were fabricated, in fact, the local police were about to drop the investigation due to a lack of evidence. But it was too late; Fashanu hanged himself in a car garage in Shoreditch. In his suicide note, he said, “I realised I had already been presumed guilty. I don`t want to bring any more embarrassment on my family.”

What is apparent when one reads the finer details of Fashanu`s life after knowledge of his sexuality became known; was the lack of a support network at every turn. It`s true he appeared to make some bad decisions- the fling with Julie Goodyear, the attempt to besmirch Cabinet officials- but one is left with the impression that he was alone- cold shouldered by the sport he loved. It is perhaps no wonder that gay footballers feel inclined to keep their lifestyle under wraps. Last February, the F.A. were due to release a hard hitting campaign on homophobia in football, with this provocative video. The plan was to put it on YouTube, conduct a viral campaign via the internet and get all professional clubs to broadcast it on stadium screens at half-time.

Days before the video and campaign were due for launch; the F.A. pulled it, explaining that they needed time to reconsider their whole strategy on homophobia. The campaign remains gathering dust on a shelf. Reports suggest the F.A. were worried about a backlash given the coarse language utilised in the video. Critics wondered why a more positive approach could not have been adopted, perhaps showing leading footballers denouncing homophobia. Is this a strategy the F.A. considered? Again, one can only speculate, but is there a shortage of straight footballers willing to give visible backing to such a campaign for fear of being besmirched by acid tongues on the terraces, or perhaps even on training grounds? In October 2006, Rio Ferdinand appeared on Radio 1 and, in an interview with Chris Moyles, called him “a faggot” for jokingly suggesting he would prefer to date Alan Smith than Paul Scholes. The BBC dismissed the exchange as “banter” and the incident was largely swept under the carpet. One wonders what Rio Ferdinand`s thoughts were when Ron Atkinson was heard on microphone labeling Marcel Desailly “a lazy nigger.”

A few weeks ago, a sexism row erupted in the football world after Richard Keys and Andy Gray were recorded making some rather retrograde remarks about female referee`s assistant Sian Massey. The incident showed that if enough publicity is given to an issue, such behaviours can be eradicated and held up to ridicule. Football does not seem to have got there with sexuality yet. Maybe it`s because I spend most of my time surrounded by crowds of Arsenal fans who- the odd anti Semitic moron aside- are quite a liberal lot. But I genuinely do not hear homophobic language often used to insult referees or opposing players. Five to ten years ago, words such as “poof” and “faggot” were a common part of the insult lexicon. I do not hear them often anymore. Are they simply out of fashion? I think the football supporting public, is largely ready for footballers to be openly homosexual. But whilst the F.A. hide behind mealy mouthed statements about strategy reconsideration, then footballers aren`t going to feel sufficiently supported to open this can of worms. When an England captain can use a word like “faggot” without reprisal and the nation`s most distributed newspaper, the Sun, can, in the 21st century, use a headline like “Shakes-queer” when pontificating on a common theory in intellectual circles that William Shakespeare was bisexual, it is no surprise that this vicious circle continues. Gay footballers do not feel supported enough to come out and in turn, football can keep existing in its little bubble where we can pretend it`s not an issue. Since Fashanu`s demise, football has been crying out for another gay trailblazer. But this one needs to be less tragic and more supported, even a trailblazer needs a sympathetic network of foot soldiers to help stamp out ugly prejudice.LD.

You can find more information on the the Justin Campaign here.

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