Why the FA loves gay footballers

A new campaign against homophobia is more about lecturing footie fans than tackling discrimination.

Last week, David Cameron held a high level ‘summit’ in Downing Street to discuss how to tackle racism and homophobia in football. The summit coincided with the launch of the Football Association’s new crusade, er, sorry, campaign to tackle homophobia in the game: Opening Doors & Joining In. I don’t particularly enjoy hearing anti-gay chants on the terraces, but I know that any official campaign against homophobia is nothing more than an ethical stick with which to beat working-class fans for their poor inclusion manners.

Although the recent incidents involving Chelsea’s John Terry and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez have reignited the debate about racism in football, most commentators acknowledge that overt racist abuse is largely a thing of the past. Not so homophobia. A recent BBC documentary argued that gay footballers are too afraid to come out - there are no openly gay professional footballers in the UK - and that homophobic terrace chants are still tolerated. It’s time for clubs and the football authorities what they call ‘football’s last taboo’. A senior UK government source was recently quoted as saying ‘Football’s in the gutter at the moment… And they’ve got real problems with homophobia in dressing rooms and on the terraces. It needs top clubs to speak out repeatedly and as publicly as possible.’

The football authorities have recently started taking tougher action against fans and players who express homophobic sentiments. In the past few months, a number of fans have been arrested for homophobic abuse, predominantly in games involving Brighton, a town with a prominent gay scene. A number of footballers have also been disciplined for homophobic insults. Oxford City’s Lee Steel and Leicester’s Michael Ball have been fined by the FA and sacked by their clubs for posting anti-gay messages on Twitter. West Ham’s new signing Ravel Morrison hasn’t made one first team appearance for his new club, but has already been hit with a £7,000 FA fine for a homophobic tweet.

Unlike racist abuse, which is directed at black players, the targets of anti-gay abuse are not necessarily gay themselves. Graeme Le Saux and Sol Campbell deny they are gay, but both have been subjected to anti-gay abuse. Le Saux, for example, was considered fair game for homophobic insults because he was interested in the arts and read the Guardian. These gay slurs are calculated to hurt because they call into question a footballer’s masculinity.

One of the difficulties about discussing homophobia in football is defining the scale of the problem. Yes, there are homophobic chants and tweets, but are gay footballers discriminated against? As no professional footballer in Britain has ‘come out’, this is an entirely academic question. No one – with the exception of publicist Max Clifford – seems to know any gay footballers. Gay footballers’ careers are not being ruined because they are choosing to stay in the closet. Whether they would be hounded out of the game, as former Norwich and Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu was, if they were open about their sexuality, is entirely a matter of speculation.

The clamour for action to tackle homophobia within football does not come from gay professional footballers. It comes from outside the professional game, from campaigning groups like Kick it Out and Stonewall, and from politicians. It’s not hard to see why politicians have seized on football rather than other social arenas. When culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was interviewed on Radio 5 Live on the morning of the Downing Street summit, he said ‘football is like Heineken; it reaches the parts of society that politicians can’t’. Hunt’s choice of words perfectly expresses the disconnection of the political class from the rest of society. Football is genuinely popular whereas politicians are held in fairly low esteem. Little surprise, therefore, that football has been co-opted as the sporting arm of government social policy.

Football is also singled out as a hotbed of bigotry because of its white working-class constituency. The homophobia in football campaign is essentially a flag of convenience for middle-class snobbery. While overt expressions of elitism are frowned upon, moral grandstanding over racism or homophobia allows liberals to express their contempt for the uncouth white working classes. The clampdowns on racist and homophobic abuse have very little to do with equality; these are more like modern inquisitions punishing football fans for expressing heretical sentiments.

Why are there no openly gay footballers in Britain? The obvious answer is that gay players are terrified of the hostile reaction they would face. Gay-rights group Stonewall says that football is ‘institutionally homophobic’. In other words, fans, managers and fellow players are all unreconstructed bigots who would persecute any openly gay footballers.

But this is an untested assumption. According to Stonewall’s 2009 report, Leagues Behind, two thirds of fans would be comfortable if a player in their team were openly gay. Prejudice and hostility towards gay people has steadily declined over the past 20 years and there’s no reason to believe that football is immune from this trend. Yes, there will still be bigots, but they are now in the minority.

Homophobic chanting won’t disappear overnight, but as social attitudes become more relaxed, anti-gay abuse in football will continue to decline. Will official clampdowns on homophobic abuse help? I don’t think so. The mind-your-language culture that has been imposed on football over the past 20 years has served only to make the matchday experience more anodyne. Rather than criminalising homophobic abuse, it would be far more powerful if fans or players challenged the bigots themselves. It may not be the easy option, but it’s better than letting the thought-police sanitise football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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