"Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic," advocates Mario Gomez, Bayern Munich and German national team striker, in a recent interview with German magazine Bunte. It is a debate that is happening across the soccer world.
The sexual idea of male footballers is athletes with WAGS, wives and girlfriends. They are photographed on the beach with sexy ladies, they are caught in the act with female hookers. Some are regular straight blokes who stay in and watch TV with their wives. And some are gay.
When we look at soccer teams now, it is incredible to imagine a time when the first black players routinely faced demonstrations of pernicious racism. Bananas were thrown at some. Opposing players would launch vicious slurs attached to savage tackles. It was dangerous being first. Now, black players can be seen in most national leagues. They are equals and successful. They are largely free from racial abuse although there are substantial pockets of racism that still exist. Today, being black and being a footballer is not about being isolated. But should an openly gay player run on to the pitch, he could feel alone at the frontier. What could he expect?
Professor Ellis Cashmore of the University of Staffordshire in England has conducted research into attitudes towards gay players in professional soccer.
The parallels between the experience of gay players and black players are not exact, but there are lessons. In Britain in the 1980s, black players were subjected to racial abuse and hostility practically week-by-week, even by their own team's fans. The barracking went far beyond the typical banter that is germane to British soccer culture; it was spiteful, malicious and no doubt assisted, if not precipitated, by neo-Nazi skinhead and the far right extremists that, at that time populated soccer stadiums. It wasn't simply a question of novelty -- British soccer was seen as a traditional white man's game and blacks were regarded as contaminants. Through the 1990s, so many high quality black players, both from Britain and elsewhere, came to the British leagues and excelled. Criticizing them became unsustainable, particularly when, in some teams, black players were in a majority. Of course, unlike gay players, black players were and are a visible minority. As there are no known gay players, no one can identify them. There's no doubt that the first one or two who come out, or -- more probably -- are "outed" will experience what British fans call "stick" i.e. good-humored reprimands or chastisement, which can often be sharp but is essentially not malevolent. They will also encounter more serious forms of bigotry from sections of the crowds. It will be mean, nasty and wounding. But there's no doubt that this will be transitory: once the players show their mettle, their sexual orientation, like all other aspects of their life, will recede in importance. Fans the world over... are interested principally in performance on the field of play. Everything else is secondary. This doesn't rule out periodic resurgences of homophobic "stick" -- when the player is performing poorly.
The research produced some interesting findings. Professor Cashmore and his colleague Dr. Jamie Cleland, found that 93 percent of respondents believed that there was no place for homophobia in soccer. Nine out of ten responded that a player's performance was more important than his sexuality. 60 percent wanted gay payers to come out; 40 percent believed they should keep it as a private matter as it was unrelated to the game.
There are many in the soccer establishment who support this last finding: don't come out, as it's not in the player's interest. Should he come out, he may as well pack his bags for Siberia. Better to follow the US army directive, "don't ask, don't tell." A gay player won't be able to concentrate on the game with the sheds of abuse from the mob that will surely fall on his ears. And what about life inside the locker room, the sideways glance from other players with homophobic tendencies, team unity could be harmed. It just won't work. "Your life will be hell. Wait until you retire, then be gay."
There may be more to this type of "concern" for the player's well-being than meets the eye. Cashmore is of the opinion there are other motives.
Many, many of our respondents collectively came up with a theory that either the clubs and/or agents are behind the masquerade; they are the ones prohibiting players from coming out because they believe there would be marketing implications. Either the club's brand would suffer, they feel; or the agents think their players would lose endorsements and hence they would lose commission.
To date, only one top player made the leap. Justin Fashanu was a pioneer in both camps, gay and black. A quality player, he won Goal of the Season in 1980 in England and reportedly became the first English black player to earn over $1 million. He was in demand at the top English clubs of the time. In 1990, in the twilight of his career at the top level, he decided to out himself to a tabloid newspaper. At first, his brother John, a fellow professional, disowned him. The soccer establishment was uncomfortable. He was unable to find a club willing to sign him to a long-term contract. He moved to the United States for a while, coaching and playing in Los Angeles. He hung himself in 1998 after a seventeen-year old male made a complaint of sexual assault against him in Maryland. He denied the charges. It was reported that his suicide note claimed the public would assume his guilt and he wished no further pain and suffering for his family.
"Justin Fashanu's fate was not sealed by his sexuality, but many suspect the hounding by the media was a contributory factor." Cashmore says. "I think Fashanu inadvertently issued a caution, one that's been observed ever since. The irony is that our research indicates that there is actually very little to fear and that the reception an out gay player would receive from the media and crowds would not be too intimidating. It would also fade quickly. The issue is simply one of environment: because no player has tested it. My guess -- based on the research -- is that it would not be nearly such a hostile place as many imagine."
Modern, diverse society has nuanced gay identity into platforms closed off previously -- pop culture, politics, equal legal rights, raising children. Soccer could be next to join the wave and help end the taboo Mario Gomez speaks of. Should it happen, are America's three big sports ready to follow?
For those interested in participating in the research being done by the Staffordshire University team into controversial issues in soccer, visit topfan.co.uk