Football versus Homophobia: Taking Penalties

Thomas Hitzlsperger was a highly capable German international footballer. There is probably nothing he could have done, however, short of committing some heinous crime, that would have attracted even approximately similar media attention as his recent revelation he was homosexual. There are, of course a number of reasons for this but at the most basic level we should still question why something entirely irrelevant to his public role must define his public image and dominate the news cycle.

It has been almost a month since the former Aston Villa and Everton player announced that he is gay, and coincidentally we now find ourselves at the start of the FA endorsed ‘Homophobia versus Football’ month, and the Sochi Winter Olympics which threaten to be overshadowed by repressive Russian laws regarding homosexuality. It may be suggested the latter should offer a sense of perspective on homophobia in UK football. After all, whilst media reaction to Hitzlsperger’s announcement has oscillated wildly from self-congratulation to self-flagellation, there has been a sense football might finally be emerging from its long adolescence.  Public reaction was broadly positive and much of the discourse following Hitzlsperger’s announcement focused on what could be done to encourage more footballers to be open about their sexuality.

Any optimism though has been tempered by the fact Hitzlsperger only felt able to make this announcement after he had retired. The paucity of openly non-heterosexual male footballers is well-documented. Former Leeds winger Robbie Rodgers is one of the few other professional examples, and he felt compelled to retire after announcing his sexuality. That he has since felt able to resume his playing career in the more tolerant climes of Los Angles is excellent news, but reflects poorly on the culture of English football, and the UK more generally.  More seriously, the suicide of Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay man to play professional football in England, still looms over any debate around football and sexuality.

The BBC’s typically content-free magazine show Football Focus secured a feature interview with Hitzlsperger the weekend following his revelation and typically summed up these ambivalences in the most ham-fisted of manners. Gary Linker, star BBC anchorman, was deployed to a fancy hotel to chat to Hitzlsperger. During the interview the former Aston Villa man spoke eloquently about his decisions, how his sexuality had affected his career and whether future generations of footballers would be able to discuss their sexuality more openly.

If this was a promising beginning, things took an odd turn when on returning to the studio we were greeted with Robbie Fowler and Robbie Savage who, the programme’s host did at least have the good grace to inform us, had both been recently accused by heterosexual footballer Graeme Le Saux slinging homophobic taunts in his direction during their respective playing careers. Both muttered out half-hearted apologies; well actually Savage, doing his best bribe-taking servant impression, “couldn’t recall the incident.”

Yet in spite of this, both seemed utterly bemused by why any player would fear ‘coming out.’ Neither believed it would ever have been a problem with their fellow professionals, and certainly there wouldn’t be a problem with the fans. The blinding illogic would have been easier to take if they didn’t look and sound quite so smugly contented with the largesse of tolerance they were bestowing upon the world.

Earlier I implied it was typical insensitive clumsiness for the BBC to stick two footballers with allegations of homophobic abuse hanging over their heads on TV discuss homophobia in football. Maybe though it was an incredibly clever bit of production. The discussion asks what is stopping gay footballers coming out, but the answer is the discussion itself.

That discussion does not even have to take the form of the flabby complacencies and eye-popping hypocrisies of Savage and Fowler to be damaging.  Anyone who’s anyone in football has spent quite a long time in the last month speculating to camera on when an active top-level, professional footballer will ‘come out.’ As if when this happens, football will have ‘got’ tolerance and we can all go home.

Such speculation is often coupled with laments concerning football’s poor record of openly non-heterosexual professionals in comparison with the likes of rugby, basketball and cricket. And it’s true: all those sports have had top class players with alternative sexualities whilst active, with relatively little fuss. What is the explanation for this? Some point to a fan ‘culture’ in football which positively encourages you to say vicious, nasty things as loud as you can to people you have paid to see do their job. There’s probably some truth in this, though I do wonder, when footballers get so much abuse for just turning up, if it really is the main thing stopping them being open about their sexuality.

Maybe there is an entirely legitimate concern the ‘openly gay footballer’ we await impatiently for will no longer be merely a footballer, he’ll be a gay footballer. They would become a gay midfielder rather than a ‘midfielder.’ Not only would their entire public persona be suddenly redefined based on their sexuality rather than their talent, the ‘openly gay footballer’ vacancy appears to be something of a full-time job.  There would be interviews, expectations of leading campaigns and media scrutiny of your every utterance.

Hitzlsperger and Rodgers are clearly very intelligent and articulate people and it’s hard to imagine an active footballer without the intelligence and media savvy of these two players taking the penalty of ‘coming out’ just to make English football feel better about itself. ‘Coming out’ is difficult enough for many people, never mind the additional pressure to become a figurehead for a sexual preference and having it overshadow your superlative talent and hard-won professional achievements.

People understandably compare these cases to openly gay Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. Put simply though football is much bigger than rugby, and so the pressure and media intrusion is much more intense. Football is more than a sport. Fans are invested in football in the same way others invest in religion. And this issue in football has become more than an issue, it’s become a mythology. The fevered expectation of an openly gay footballer may be well-intentioned, but it risks making him a messianic figure. And let’s be clear, the arrival of such a messiah will not mean football has solved its homophobia problem. Obsessing over mythologies and messiahs may be highly diverting, but it is a pretty poor course of action if you want to make some progress.

The media furore that followed Hitzlsperger’s announcement didn’t remind me of Gareth Thomas’s ‘coming out’ so much as the ‘outing’ by J.K Rowling of her rather less sporting creation, Dumbledore, of Harry Potter fame. The difference, of course, is that Dumbledore is not a real person. Dumbledore doesn’t have to go about his business as ‘noted gay wizard Dumbledore.’ He is not expected to fight for gay wizards everywhere, predict the future of gay wizards or be prodded to identify some tenuous link between being gay and being a wizard.

An active gay professional footballer, however, is likely to get all that and more, with the additional disadvantage of actually existing. Rowling was heavily criticised by some for just throwing details of Dumbledore’s sexuality out there in an interview; it was never mentioned within the books. The books though are not about Dumbledore’s sexuality: much more relevant to his character are his wizardly abilities, his paternal role or whatever else (OK I know quite a lot less about Harry Potter than football).

If we must treat footballers like fictional characters existing for our entertainment, messiahs, wizards or whatever else, can we at least follow Rowling’s example and focus on what’s relevant to that entertainment? Thomas Hitzlsperger played 52 times as a full German international. A much smaller proportion of the planet has done that than the roughly 5% who are non-heterosexual. If a top-level active professional footballer announces they have an alternative sexual orientation they would be remarkable, but they would primarily be remarkable because they are a top-level professional footballer. If they wish to use this position to promote greater tolerance  by discussing their experiences, fantastic, but no-one else has any right to demand they do so.