Playing the Field

‘Don’t drop your soap in the shower’ was what my Geography teacher once said when we asked him about homosexuality.

Football has gained acceptance for some things, and not for others

He was a kind-hearted man in nature, however a self-confessed homophobe and also the head coach of the rugby team, an unfortunate if coincidental combination. Though I respected him for being up-front about it, can you imagine someone who was openly racist in such a position? You see, after the world gives itself a collective pat on the back for giving so much support to the Paralympics, soccer continues to ostracise those who are different in another way. Having battled with racism (a problem that’s been rearing its ugly head once more recently), sexism and politics; again football finds itself at the centre of a cultural problem that refuses to go away. Homophobia.

It is said that one in every ten people are homosexual. There are 92 league clubs in England, each with an average squad size of 25. That’s 2,300 players, so going by those figures there could well be 230 gay players in the top four divisions in England, right? Now that indeed may well be the case, but the current number of openly gay players amongst these ranks is a big fat 0. As a matter of fact, not a single British player has come out as being gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990, and when one hears Fashanu’s story you can’t blame them!

Upon his arrival as a teenager, the black British midfielder lit up the scene with sumptuous skill and a wicked shot. With Norwich he scored over 40 times which earned him the ‘honour’ of being the first million pound black player when bought by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Things didn’t work out at Forest though, and Clough described a disciplining he gave Fashanu for frequenting ‘poof’s clubs’ (this slur was played down by then-Forest captain John McGovern).

Unfortunately at this point things began to fizzle out for Justin, at which stage he decided to come out. Following the announcement his own brother John refused to show his support, and spoke out in a Sun headline entitled ‘John Fashanu: My Gay Brother is an Outcast’, he was also seen on TV criticizing his brother’s decision. Justin himself suffered the taunts of away supporters because of his own decision and stated that his own teammates used taunt him in a malicious way. Justin moved to America in 1997 where he retired, less than a year later allegations emerged that Fashanu had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy in Maryland. A once brilliant midfielder was found hung on May 3rd 1998. All charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.

Fashanu continues to be the only high-profile openly gay footballer from Britain

So after the most difficult decision of his life, Fashanu was outcasted by his family, taunted by supporters and team-mates, and eventually hung himself. It’s no surprise that no footballers have come out since. What hope is there for young gay men who want to make the step up to professional game, or for current professionals who bear the burden everyday of being someone they’re not just to be accepted? ‘Always be yourself’, what a load of tripe!

More-over, there’s hardly a huge queue of straight players standing up for gay rights and paving the way forward. Due to football’s backward mentality, any player who does so runs the risk of being labelled something they’re not by the media, and adding more fuel to the fire for opposing supporters. While the FA has launched a campaign against homophobia in football, it’s not nearly as prevalent as their current priority ‘respect the referee’. Why is this serious problem not a priority? Do the FA just think it will gradually get better over time with absolutely no input whatsoever?

In other sports, athletes have come out and been entirely supported, even in our country, one of the most conservative in the Western World. Donal Óg Cusack’s (one of the most famous hurling players in Ireland) coming out, coming hand in hand with increasing support for LGBT groups around the country, has no doubt proved to be an inspiration for some young people who feel afraid of doing the same, his decision made even more admirable when one considers how unsupportive the GAA have been since. In another mainstream British sport, rugby, Welsh international Gareth Thomas came out in 2007 to the plaudits of fans, fellow players, and an entire nation. In both examples these players have proven to be an exceptional role model for homosexual people of all ages to summon the courage to be who they are; why doesn’t the biggest, best, and most influential sport have the same? Especially when there’s been such good work done on a local level with LGBT clubs competing in leagues all over Ireland, while Limerick has applied for the ‘Gay Games’ in 2018!

While other sports have embraced those with a different orientation as they would any other, football predominantly still stands in the conservative time warp. It alienates, taunts, and outcasts gays who have the courage to stand up for their rights, and straight or gay, that’s despicable.


2 Comments on “Playing the Field”

  1. Jim Read says:

    I agree with your basic premise, that football is homophobic and isn’t doing enough about it and I agree Justin Fashanu had a tough time as a gay footballer before and after he came out. But, when I researched his life for a biography, I also came across some positive stories which need to be heard.

    After coming out Fashanu played for three British clubs for significant periods. At Torquay, he was made captain soon after joining and, later, assistant player/manager. He was popular with teammates, staff and supporters at Airdrie. When he joined Hearts, a negative letter in the Edinburgh newspaper drew a response from club captain, John Robertson, in Fashanu’s defence.

    There was no direct link between Fashanu’s suicide and his experiences of homophobia in football. I suggest his struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his Christian beliefs caused him more a great deal more grief. Incidentally the charges of sexual assault had not been dropped when Fashanu took his own life. In fact he had just heard that he was still wanted for questioning.

    It seems to me that the example of Justin Fashanu has been used to discourage gay players from coming out, which is unfortunate. A balanced account of his experience offers some encouragement. His football career in Britain actually picked up after he came out. He demonstrated that it was possible to play and survive as an openly gay professional footballer.

    Jim Read, author, Justin Fashanu: The Biography

  2. Kevin Galvin says:

    Thanks a million for the reply Jim.

    I’m familiar with some of the good stories surronding Fashanu, and other good stories about gay people in football, but in my mind the mainstream attitude is still a negative one towards homosexualty.

    I suppose I used his story as he was the only man who openly came out as a professional footballer, and I’m sure that the abuse he suffered as a professional player affected him, whether in his decision to take his own life I’m not sure, his Christiany affecting his sexuality I’m afraid is an issue to be discussed on a site away from football.

    I really do hope that more is done in the mainstream media to convey homosexuality in football as a positive thing in future, maybe then we can see the positive side of Fashanu’s life.

    Again, thanks for the reply!

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