Expert Opinion

Homophobia in sport - a response

In this post, Professor Kevin Hylton and Professor Stephen Wagg respond to a recent BBC survey looking at whether sports fans would be comfortable with their club signing a gay player and comments made by Football Association chairman Greg Clarke.

Published on 26 Oct 2016

Greg Clarke’s caution to football players not to come out seems borne of an acknowledgement of football culture past and present, and the homophobia that many in the game will recognise. Clarke’s reticence is based upon appeasing bigots rather than enabling gay men and women to freely express themselves as players and spectators. Football has to clean up its act where discrimination is concerned. It cannot pick and choose which forms of discrimination and xenophobia to concentrate its resources on and which to ignore.

The advice to gay players and to nay sayers in the locker rooms and stands should be measured, yes, but just, supportive and unequivocal. There should be no room for weasel words. Football against homophobia should mean just that and more in terms of proactive behaviour to provide an environment that is safe and clear about football’s stance on any form of discrimination and bigotry. Clarke’s position that a safe space should be the precursor to players coming out is a utopian ideal, we still don’t have consistently ‘safe spaces’ for Black players, women, people with disabilities, so should we collude to exclude them until football is ready?

This survey goes a long way to refuting the argument that sports fans might be an obstacle to the acceptance of openly gay footballers. But then the supposed opposition of the public is often used as a pretext for not doing something. It seems that the problem may lie elsewhere. It may, for example, have to do with club proprietors who are worried about what sponsors might think. It may have to do with administrators and club managers. Likewise, with players, of whom Chris Sutton in his BBC interview may be speaking with undue optimism.

The problem here may not be one specifically of homophobia so much as of course and sometimes militant hetero-sexism. For example, in 2014 Richard Scudamore, Executive Chairman of the Premier League, was revealed by his PA to be referring to women as 'gash' and 'big-titted broads' in his emails.

The same year Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay and Crystal Palace director of football Iain Moody were found to have been sending emails and texts that were racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic. One spoke thus of a female football agent: 'I hope she's looking after your needs. I bet you'd love a bounce on her falsies'. Another football agent was referred to as a 'gay snake'. Neither Scudamore, nor Mackay nor Moody received any sanction. Then there is the Ched Evans rape case - one of an escalating number of such episodes - which scarcely reveals an enlightened view of human sexuality on the part of young footballers out on a Saturday night.

There's no reason to suppose that the attitudes of Scudamore, Mackay, Moody or Evans are in any way untypical. They suggest a crude and often hateful heterosexual locker and board room culture. And this is the culture in which we are asking gay footballers to declare themselves?

In preparation for next week’s FA Inclusion Advisory Board really consider these three aims from its action plan: 1) Clarify anti-discrimination regulations and sanctions, to create clarity and understanding around the regulations and sanctions related to discriminatory behaviour, 2) Instil confidence in reporting discrimination and to generate confidence in the reporting and subsequent handling of discrimination cases and be transparent with the outcomes, 3) Increase knowledge, awareness and understanding of equality and inclusion – and what constitutes discriminatory behaviour within football, providing information, guidance and training.

Our message to Greg Clarke is be brave, bet on the majority and not the small minority in football. Be vocal, ramp up any anti-homophobia work in the game and let the 8% know that they are being policed out of the game. Be inclusive, you’re not alone, the clubs, and fans, media and national governing organisations can all support this movement for social justice.

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