Is football lagging behind in representations of homosexuality?

There is an oddly prominent place in British public life that seems more than usually resistant to change in this area: professional football.

Five years ago a project called It Gets Better was started. It aims to reassure young people who were being bullied because of their sexuality, that things improve as you transition into more mature environments. It is effective because it gives hope for a better future whilst acknowledging that for many of those kids the present is pretty damn painful.

And it seems to speak another truth as well; culturally many countries have been on a track to give their non-heterosexual citizens more rights. In the UK, since decriminalisation, there has been the equalising of the age of consent, more employment and consumer rights, civil partnerships, and gay adoption. It is hard to deny that over the last few decades things have got better. Progressive change is the zeitgeist and it appears to be all pervading. Well, almost all pervading.

There is an oddly prominent place in British public life that seems more than usually resistant to change in this area: professional football.

Famously it has been groundbreaking in its time. English footballer Justin Fashanu came out in 1990. But that ended tragically with his suicide in 1998.

With football being such a big sport it does stand out in lacking any openly gay players. If people can name ten boxers, then Nicola Adams is probably among them, and Tom Daley will be the only professional diver many can name. Probably a majority of people could name more footballers, but none who call themselves anything other than heterosexual.

But currently, Wales is enjoying a very good reputation on this front. Rugby is currently boasting two highly respected professionals who are gay; former international Gareth Thomas and the man selected to referee the recent World Cup final, Nigel Owens. Both have spoken about tough times when issues around their sexuality contributed to significant personal challenges, and I’m not implying for a moment that they have had it easy, but two Welsh people overcoming adversity is nothing but good representation for the country.

Nonetheless it has been comforting to see the support they have enjoyed from their peers. Gareth Thomas called coming out to his teammates “the toughest thing I’ve ever done”. Their reactions? In his own words, “They were there for me.” And Nigel Owens gets criticised from all sides (a clear sign a referee is doing a good job) but, from his colleagues, it never threatens to broach the topic of his personal life.

There have been cases of homophobic abuse being hurled at him from people watching the game. Stadium owners have acted swiftly and issued bans to these ‘fans’, another clear sign that he has the support of the people he works with. Rugby’s problems aren’t on the pitch they’re in the terraces, but how does this compare with football?

We have demonstrations of a worrying immaturity on the football terraces. There was the unedifying hounding on social media of someone who had accused Ched Evans of rape and England international Sol Campbell was called homosexual because he liked reading books. This is not only offensive and homophobic, it is schoolyard bullying by immature adults. And above anything else, it suggests a deep cultural problem for football as a sport.

You can’t hold a club responsible for everything it’s ‘fans’ do, but you can blame them for how they choose to react and conduct themselves. For a while they joined in; Vinny Jones mocked Graeme Le Saux by wiggling his bottom every time the guy tried to take a free kick, an act that I don’t think that could happen on more than one occasion now. But the complete rejection of homophobia doesn’t seem to be very prominent at all.

Privately, some football players may have come out to their families and some of their colleagues may know and support them. Like in many walks of life the vast majority of players are probably approaching being half-decent humans. But players choosing to keep this a secret demonstrate how they lack trust in the clubs to protect them. Abuse and ignorance sits on the terraces across many sports, undoubtedly, but peers, colleagues, and supposed professionals in football are not doing enough to challenge this. Luckily they have a growing number of examples of sports who are refusing to allow their athletes be treated this way.