A gay pro coming out? ‘Media intrusion is putting them off’
After a weekend of football supporting the rainbow laces campaign and LGBT equality, it’s clear the sport is committed to making football accessible for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.
From the Premier League down to League Two, players, managers and officials including Spurs star Eric Dier, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and referee Martin Atkinson endorsed the campaign.
Corner flags usually adorned with a club’s crest were replaced with ones bearing the rainbow colours. Twitter profile pictures of the EFL, Premier League and clubs were all transformed to support the cause.
It was a clear sign of support for the LGBT community, with many clubs also supporting LGBT groups and the Premier League having a three-year deal with Stonewall, the LGBT rights group.
And yet not everyone was visible in backing the campaign. Not one player at the London Stadium wore the laces as West Ham played Leicester on Friday, and you only need to look at Twitter to see some of the vile comments generated by the weekend’s activities.
‘I don’t know when it will happen’
Homophobia is still rife in the game, and Wycombe midfielder Matt Bloomfield admits he has no idea when the first gay player will come out.
The 33-year-old became the first player to sign the government’s ‘Football against Homophobia’ charter in October 2011 on behalf of the Chairboys. The aim of the charter is to provide a backing and show that people’s sexuality is not an issue.
But six years later, Bloomfield says the day that a male professional footballer comes out as gay in this country could still be some time away.
“I’ve got no idea when it will happen,” he says. “When I signed the charter in 2011, I hoped it would be soon. It’s not looking like it’s going to be imminent, but I hope it will be soon.
‘In 2017 being gay is part of common life, so it’s shame there’s no openly gay footballers’
“I’ve no right to say when a player should come out. They should be able to live their life as they want, and they should feel comfortable and confident.
‘’I haven’t come across any gay players, but [if I did] I hope they would confide in me. I have no issues with it, but unfortunately no one has been confident enough to do it yet.
‘’In 2017 being gay is part of common life, so it’s shame there’s no openly gay footballers.’’
In the past few years, former Aston Villa defender Thomas Hitzlsperger and Leeds United player Robbie Rogers have both confirmed they are gay, but only after ending their playing careers, with with the former revealing it would have been “impossible” to come out whilst playing.
Bloomfield, who has racked up over 450 appearances for Wycombe, agrees with the former Germany player. “There would be a lot of media intrusion,” he agrees. “Particularly in the Premier League, there would be great intrusion into their private life.
“They would be followed to training, watched to see what they’re getting up to at home and wherever they go, and their private lives would go. They would be followed everywhere and they’d be put massively into the spotlight.
“That could trickle onto the terraces and into the changing room, and they may well suffer some abuse over it.
“They wouldn’t be able to focus on their career, and I think the fear of that is putting a gay player off from coming out. They want to focus on playing and don’t want the hassle it would bring.”
Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay player in the 1980s, but it was reported his Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough would abuse him for being gay.
Arriving from Norwich for £1m in 1981, the striker was sold on the cheap across the Trent to Notts County a year later.
He struggled with his career amid his sexuality, playing for a further 17 clubs. In 1990, The Sun revealed he was gay. Just eight years later, amid sexual assault allegations, he committed suicide.
Whilst Bloomfield believes LGBT rights are becoming more widely accepted, he says Fashanu’s sad story still acts a case in point in putting players off from coming out.
‘’It was 30-odd-years ago, so we have moved on. LGBT acceptance is better now than then and will get better in the next 20, 30, 40 years,’’ he says. I’m pleased with how things are as acceptance is becoming the norm.
‘’But until a gay player comes out, Fashanu will still be a reference point and it’s a shame.
‘’A player will be massively in the spotlight. Fashanu would have been better off now, so it’s really sad. Hopefully we will see a gay player very soon.’’
The ex-England youth international is a part of the Justin Campaign, set up in 2008 to remember Fashanu and to provide a message that football is open and there is acceptance. In recent years there has been a clampdown on racial abuse due to education, and Bloomfield believes education is important.
“I was at an event the campaign had set up and I was speaking to a Nottingham Forest fan. He was saying how he hears homophobic slang and abuse, yet racial abuse is frowned upon,’’ he says.
“There’s no difference between racist and homophobic abuse. Both are abuse.
“My uncle was gay, so from my own point of view I have always seen being gay as normal. That upbringing has shaped me as an adult. Some people have different upbringings and those influences can rub off on you, making them narrow as an adult.
“Children and young adults may hear slang and think it’s acceptable. Both adults and children need to be educated, because it’s unacceptable.”
Bloomfield is also a qualified journalist, having completed a degree in sports writing and broadcasting at Staffordshire University, and has written about around homophobia in football on the BBC website.
There was a time, he said, when he put his name into Google and it would come up with ‘Matt Bloomfield gay’. Whilst he says he has no issues as he is comfortable in his own skin, with his wife and children, he believes stereotyping of footballers may well be a hindrance.
Ex-Chelsea player Graham Le Saux became – in his words – the “non-gay gay icon” just because he didn’t fit the stereotype.
“Just because he is well-spoken, read books and had other hobbies people, just thought ‘oh, he is gay’.”
‘’He did play 20-odd years ago when there wouldn’t have been as much acceptance, but footballers have a stereotype as being uneducated,’’ he says.
‘’Just because he is well-spoken, read books and had other hobbies, people just thought ‘oh, he is gay’. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
‘’He can’t be a proper player because he is smart and enjoys other things in life. It’s stupid.
‘’But newspapers want to sell copies, so they will run nonsense like that. That’s life.
‘’Players want to concentrate on playing. They have enough to deal with in personal life without the media intrusion.
‘’The case of Le Saux does put pros off from coming out.’’
In a recent Daily Star interview with former Stoke City player Carl Hoefkens, the Belgian claimed that a household name at the club did bring he boyfriend to training.
Bloomfield said is surprised by such comments, but believes the Professional Footballers Association will help players to reveal their sexuality as and when they want.
“I was really surprised to see such comments, because he was so open. The identity could have easily been leaked, they could have been followed and snapped, and with social media anything can be spread at the touch of a button.
“But I feel they do have they support they need. The PFA and FA have taken great strides in helping to deal with the stigma of mental health. Yes, more can be done, but they are committed to helping players and supporting them in their decisions.
“They are trying to get rid of the stigma and support openly gay players. I hope it happens soon.”
For more information about Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, click here.