Big Issues In Sport: Is Football Institutionally Homophobic?


It is well known fact then when it comes to wages, luxury and fandom football exists at the forefront of the 21st century. But when it comes to sexuality it seems to still be stuck in the 18th century! As of 2016, only 11 openly gay footballers have played in English football leagues and FIFA’s 2012 Action Plan seems to have achieved very little. So is football ‘homophobic’ and, if so, what could be done to combat this?

Thomas Hitzlsperger, the only openly gay footballer in the Premier League
Thomas Hitzlsperger, the only openly gay footballer in the Premier League

According to the University of Staffordshire, 93% of fans would be happy to see a footballer come out as gay in their club as all that matters ‘is their performance on the pitch’. Yet, only one premier league footballer, Thomas Hitzlsperger, has openly come out as gay, even though in 2008, Paul Elliot said that he knew of at least a dozen premier league footballers who were gay or bi but had not come out ‘due to fear of negative reaction’. But this then does not seem to add up. If Staffordshire’s statistics are reliable, why is their adamant fear specifically in football, especially considering many players in top-league rugby, basketball, swimming and cycling have come out. This is because, I believe, football – to borrow Stonewell’s term – is “”institutionally homophobic”. By this we mean that even though we recognise that many would be happy for a footballer to be gay, the culture developed around football normalises homophobia and then allows it to seep in to its very institutional structure. According to the BBC, 70% of fans commonly hear homophobic language, and less than half the time is this even approached by authorities. As Stonewall Chief-executive Ben Somerville put it, homophobic outpour in football “almost always goes unchallenged”. This has led in a recent report to the suggestion that clubs ‘deemed to be homophobic’ ought to be deducted points in the Premier League.

some people are gay
An example of Stonewall’s anti-homophobia campaign

But it does seem to come from a minority. Two-thirds of fans want to see homophobia kicked out the sport (though over-half of those think that the FA and other regulative bodies are ill-equipped to achieve such). What happens, however, is the minority who are using homophobic language, when being unchallenged, are normalising this standard of behaviour and this approach. Compare this, for a second, to racist language where, the BBC estimates, double the amount of instances are followed up by authorities in order to challenge the behaviour. This means that homophobic language becomes part of the culture, or the norm, within the stadium during games and then this extends to the institution as a whole. This then directly effects the players, as Max Clifford famously noted, because coming out ‘is likely to adversely affect your career’. This is both in the sense that you are likely not to be accepted by some fans and abused, you cannot play for national teams that travel internationally and you will not be accepted fully by your own team mates. Remember these words by leading Irish footballer Tony Cascarino:

“Would a player mind if he found out a team-mate was gay? Probably. Players wouldn’t want to be left alone with him, they wouldn’t want to shower with him. Before you rush to criticise, would you find it acceptable for a man to walk around a women’s dressing-room? More importantly, team-mates would be self-conscious around the player. The sexual banter would develop an uncomfortable edge if it continued. It is an undesirable scenario for a manager, since an uneasy and divided squad is not a recipe for success. A gay player himself would probably feel equally ill-at-ease. Dressing-rooms are like perverted nudist camps. Immature, wild places, little self-contained states where the normal rules of common decency and acceptable behaviour do not apply. Sexual activity and bodily functions are props players use for pranks and banter.”

Cascarino’s claim is that dressing rooms, and football as a whole, is not mature enough in any sense to accept gay footballers. It lives contained its own bubble and norms of behaviour which you cannot transgress in fear of dividing the team and hence being separated and outcast. Take for example Graham Le Saux, an ex-England national player, who said that he was constantly taunted by fans and players for being gay in such a way that made him feel he did not ‘belong’ in football. And this shows no sign of stopping. Even just last week, at the Euro’s send off, Irish manager Martin O’Neill said he wanted to ensure him and his assistant Roy Keane were not seen as “queers”. To a certain level, it is an inherent image problem within football as it covers itself with this veil of masculinity that then fosters football’s unique, and prejudicial, “norms”. Homosexuality becomes linked with femininity and thus weakness on the pitch and the industry as a whole. This is then just left to foster by FIFA who is seen by many as corrupt and ignorant or, as ex-Leeds star Robbie Rogers put it, ‘homophobic dudes who are in charge and put their buddies in charge.’ Tackling homophobia has no financial or (in FIFA’s eyes) political advantage.

So what needs to be done? Football needs to be dragged in to the twenty first century regarding approaches to homophobia. To do this it firstly must become clearer that fans cannot use homophobic language and this needs to be treated much harsher by clubs (who often have, but fail to enforce, zero-tolerance policies). Secondly, managers need to start fostering a more inclusive environment in dressing rooms and on the training pitch. A job of a manager is to keep a team united and strong and this is not done blocking out differences but rather embracing them. As for the players, there needs to a clear heightened level of education that just because a team mate is gay it does not mean they are guaranteed to hit on you in the shower! It’s footballs unique ways and schemes that has developed this level of ignorance and normalisation of homophobia and until this is dealt with from the centre the institution will remain the same, players will continue to remain in the closet due to these fears, and fans will continue to use this type of language in the face of this institution. Fans can also help. Imagine what would happen if half of Arsenal or Chelsea’s crowd boycotted a game due to the Premier League’s attitude to homophobia in football? By remaining silent, you simply let the culture foster and (sadly, once again) normalise.

When consulted, all an FA spokesperson had to say was that “The FA recognises that football has a duty to tackle all discrimination within the game and aims to confront aggressive issues such as homophobia.” Maybe someone needs to tell them that actions speak louder than words, otherwise football will remain as it currently is: Institutionally Homophobic.

More articles in Big Issues in Sport
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  2. Big Issues In Sport: Hockey’s elitism problem
  3. Big Issues In Sports: Where Are America’s Black Sporting Voices?
  4. Big Issues In Sport: Is Football Institutionally Homophobic?
  5. Big Issues In Sport: Sport As An Antidote For Society’s Obsession With Physical Perfection
  6. Big Issues in Sport: Does Sport Have a Big Enough Place in Education?

I'm a third-year Philosophy and History student whose interests (outside my love for Tudor history) pertain to issues on equality, sex and moral ethics and education. I'm also Philosophy Academic President 2016-17. @russb005

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