Offside, 9 March
The FA's campaign against homophobia is motivated by some prejudices of its own about working-class fans.
It is often said that football is the new rock’n’roll. Certainly today’s Premiership stars enjoy the wealth and celebrity lifestyles that once were the preserve of the rock aristocracy. Long gone are the days when the pinnacle of a footballer’s ambition was to earn enough money in his testimonial to open a pub. However, football is still not very rock’n’roll in one respect, and that’s gender-bending. It’s over 30 years since David Bowie made sexual ambiguity positively de rigueur. Yet even though social attitudes towards homosexuality have softened considerably since the 1970s, there are still no openly gay footballers.
This week it was announced that Arsenal left-back Ashley Cole is to sue the Sun and News of the World over stories alleging that Premiership footballers took part in a gay orgy involving a mobile phone, although he was not named in any of them. Cole’s legal team have also asked the internet search company Google to explain why searches for Ashley Cole allegedly linked the footballer’s name to the word ‘gay’. I am not suggesting that Cole was involved in any gay acts. However, his litigious reaction to a hint of homosexual behaviour underlines the fact that, even today, professional footballers still fear that being perceived to be gay would damage their reputations.
Personally, I don’t care what footballers do with their vibrating phones as long as they do the business – in the footballing sense – on the pitch. However, I’ve no time either for the Football Association’s latest crusade against homophobia in football. Last autumn the FA held a ‘homophobia summit’ as part of its Football for All campaign. In a bid to stamp out homophobia, the FA is widening the remit of its shop-a-racist hotline to cover complaints about anti-gay behaviour. Referees too have been instructed to treat homophobic abuse on the pitch as a red card offence. The FA’s ethics and sports equity manager Lucy Faulkner insists that homophobic abuse is ‘offensive and runs totally counter to both the game’s family image and efforts to make football more acceptable to all sectors of society’. How ironic that the family, which was once invoked to justify the criminalisation of homosexuality, is now deployed against homophobia.
Why, you might ask, is the FA launching a drive against homophobia at a time when society is far more tolerant of homosexuality? The FA’s campaign seems to me to be yet another stick with which to beat working-class fans for their cultural incorrectness. Last August a Hull City supporter became the first fan to be convicted and banned from football for anti-gay chants directed at Brighton supporters. More convictions will surely follow.
As well as targeting fans, the campaign problematises the ‘macho’ culture of the dressing room. But what exactly is the problem? Apart from the case of Justin Fashanu in the 1980s, there is no evidence of actual discrimination against gay players. Robbie Fowler famously waved his arse at Graeme Le Saux, a player who was perceived by some to be gay because he liked antiques and read the Guardian. But a gay slur against a straight player isn’t the same thing as detrimental treatment of gay players. In this respect, homophobia in football is not only a victimless crime but an entirely hypothetical crime, too.
I don’t mean to sound like the late Peter Osgood who, when asked about gay footballers, replied ‘We never had any at our club’. Unlike Ossie, I’m not in denial about the possibility that some footballers might be gay. However, without any actual examples of the ill-treatment of gay footballers, the campaign’s only purpose seems to be to reinforce middle-class prejudices about the unenlightened proles.
I’m not convinced that football needs an anti-homophobia campaign at all. There are plenty of openly gay public figures – politicians, pop stars, TV presenters, actors – whose careers have not been ruined when they came out. There is an assumption that working-class men are all homophobic Neanderthals but they are also the same people who vote for gay MPs, who buy the records of gay pop stars, and who follow gay TV and film stars. Hell, I bet some of them even went to see Brokeback Mountain. So, when a gay footballer finally does come out, there’s bound to be some name-calling. But why assume he will be hounded out of football? The first black footballers to break through in the 1970s and 80s faced vicious terrace hostility but they gradually silenced the monkey chanters by proving themselves on the pitch. Gay footballers ought to be able to do the same in a cultural climate which is far more conducive to acceptance of homosexuality.
The time is ripe for the emergence of football’s first gay star. Football itself is already starting to go gay round the edges. There are plenty of examples of soccer-related metrosexuality: Gazza crying like a girl, David Beckham wearing a sarong and waxing his knackers, Freddie Ljundberg modelling Calvin Klein underwear, the Chelsea team appearing shirtless and hairless, and the proliferation of players sporting Alice bands, boy-band haircuts and socks pulled over their knees (a bit tenuous, I know, but still gay in my books). I don’t know if any academics have measured the personal grooming expenditure of footballers but, if they did, I think they would find soaring levels of preening narcissism among Premiership stars. In short, footballers are already half-gay so what’s the big deal if some of them go all the way?
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