The John Terry case has highlighted prejudice in football, and the fact that, despite years of hard work – and a lot of success – racism still exists on the pitch as well as in the stands. But racism isn’t the only prejudice to exist in the professional game, or on your children’s playing fields, says Michael Donlevy
So is John Terry a racist? That’s the question being asked since he was found guilty by the FA of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand last October. The reason this is such a high-profile case is that he was England captain at the time he was accused of using racist (and foul) language towards a black player. Terry might insist that he is innocent despite being found guilty, but the England captain is an example to millions.
Still, racism isn’t the only prejudice in football. It’s not even the biggest, according to a recent survey by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Any child who plays the sport will experience it, directly or indirectly, and may well not know how to react without the right guidance. So here’s a question.
How many gay footballers can you name? If you’re struggling, the answer is one.
In the history of English football, there has only been a single openly homosexual professional footballer. Justin Fashanu, who was the first £1 million black player in 1981, came out late in his career but his life ended early, in tragedy. Accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old boy in the USA, he took his own life in 1998, claiming in his suicide note that the sex was consensual and that he didn’t want to bring shame on his family. He thought US police wanted to arrest him when, in fact, they had dropped the case.
Perhaps his ugly demise – he was found hanged in a grotty lock-up garage in east London – has dissuaded gay footballers from coming out. Even his own brother John, who found fame as an FA Cup winner with Wimbledon and host of TV’s Gladiators, was scathing at the time. But this is unlikely to be the real reason. ‘Society has moved on and is generally more accepting than it was,’ says Chris Basiurski, chair of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network.
No one knows how many homosexuals live in the UK, but the Government estimates that six per cent of the adult population are gay or bisexual. There are more than 4,000 professional footballers in England. If they are a reflection of the general population – and some would say it’s not such a good thing if they are – that means there are up to 250 secretly gay footballers.
Even rugby, which is considered more of a ‘man’s sport’, was tolerant when the Wales star Gareth Thomas came out in 2009. Yet this year the FA has charged two players for posting homophobic tweets, while fans have been arrested and banned. ‘Is football in the UK ready for a player coming out?’ says Basiurski. ‘I don’t think so. The football associations and the clubs need to ensure that match-day officials, both on and off the pitch, are properly trained and ready to recognise and respond to instances of anti-gay abuse.’
The fact is that many in society – and particularly in football, whose fans are proud of their working-class roots – remain homophobic. And children can pick things up without really understanding what they mean. My mum once had a phone call from the mother of one of my friends, upset that I had called him a fairy (these were more innocent times). I was seven. He may have inferred that I was calling him gay, but I doubt I really understood what that meant. (We are still friends, incidentally, and he has two sons, even more incidentally.)
The good news is that the sport is taking note. Kick It Out, British football’s equality campaign body, took the lead on the issue of racism but is targeting homophobia, too. It recently launched a 60-second ad, which you can watch at kickitout.org, but beware the strong language. ‘We all need to work together to create an atmosphere where a player who chooses to come out can do so safely, without being destroyed by “merciless fans” and the media,’ says Basiurski.
More can be done, especially by the FA, says Professional Footballers’ Association chairman Clarke Carlisle. ‘The responsibility lies with the national governing body,’ he says. ‘They need to make sure they set the precedent of levels of acceptance.’ But more can be done by parents, too. My son plays for a local team, and I’m happy to say there is no abuse on the field since a group of mums and dads complained about the kids’ name-calling three years ago. But more of us need to take a stand, on the touchline and in the wider world.
The final word should go to Thomas, who has been a big supporter of ChildLine: ‘I don’t know if my life is going to be easier because I’m out, but if it helps someone else, if it makes one young lad pick up the phone to ChildLine, then it will have been worth it.’
Football would do well to take note.