Monday, 6 February 2012

Your Pitch: Homophobia in Sport

Published in Gair Rhydd on 06/02/2012.

Anton Hysén is a unique footballer. He is the son of former Liverpool defender Glenn and plays for Swedish second division team Utsiktens BK. On paper, his career is nothing special and yet there remains nobody else in world football like him.

Hysén is the only openly gay footballer in the professional game today.

There is no entirely accurate statistic for the percentage of men who are homosexual, but even in a sport that is still perceived to be the epitome of masculinity, the sum total simply has to be greater than one.

The question, therefore, remains: Why do professional athletes feel a need to hide their sexuality?
Whilst racism continues to dominate the news, the time seems right to contrast Britain's attitudes towards the two. Both are forms of personal discrimination, but the level of tolerance towards homophobic comments in stadia remains far greater than that seen with racism. The British game has made fantastic strides in the fight against racism, but other forms of discrimination need to be brought into line with the FA's primary anti-discrimination campaign.

In February 2010, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor stated that a campaign to remove homophobia in football did not rank as highly on the game's agenda as it should have. Speaking about the FA's abandoned campaign video and the absence of professional footballers in it, Taylor said: “They wanted one player at every club and the Premier League didn't think it was a big enough issue”.

This is the route of the problem. There are many forms of personal abuse present within football, but even the game's hierarchy have been seen to prioritise which victims need support the most. It is to the game's credit that a player who is racially abused knows such actions will not be tolerated, but other forms of abuse must receive similar punishment. Until sport has a zero-tolerance policy on homophobic abuse, athletes will continue to hide their sexuality, if only to avoid the unwanted attention it can create.

The openly gay former Welsh rugby union star Gareth Thomas has cited uncertainty as to the response of his team-mates as one of the greatest struggles in his battle to reveal his sexuality. Thomas says that his fellow professionals “didn't even blink” when they heard the news.

This week, the PFA issued posters to all 92 Premier League and Football League clubs to promote the issue of homophobia in football, with the intention of creating a similar 'so what?' culture. Finally, it seems that football is viewing homophobia as the significant issue that it really is.

Homophobic abuse at football matches in Britain remains widespread. It is not uncommon for thousands of fans to vocally question a player's sexuality due to the style of their haircut. These comments may be in jest, but the doubts sewn in the minds of homosexual players as to whether they would be tolerated are far more damaging.

Earlier this month, Oxford City sacked striker Lee Steele for a homophobic tweet relating to Thomas' appearance on Celebrity Big Brother on his Twitter account, whilst Crawley Town's Hope Akpan and former Everton defender Michael Ball were both fined by the FA for homophobic posts. Ball's fine of £6,000 was the highest fine ever imposed by the FA for this type of discrimination. It would appear that slow progress is being made.

We are at the beginning of the road in terms of tackling homophobia in sport. The flaws of a minority within society will almost certainly be exposed if players in Britain 'come out', but it is only through such bravery that we can begin to remedy the game's problems.

The day that Anton Hysén is no longer seen as special remains a long way away, but it is something to aim for. 

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