Football fans are not homophobic

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new initiative aimed to tackle, among other things, homophobia in football is badly conceived, poorly planned and misdirected. “As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage, we will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime,” says the CPS

Most of these are already punishable offences, though the issue of “homophobic” chanting and abuse is new. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, I’ve conducted research on the supposed homophobia among football fans: contrary to popular wisdom, a huge majority of fans oppose homophobia and think it has no place in football. In fact, most fans welcome the day a professional footballer will have the confidence to come out in Britain. There is only one pro player who is openly gay and he plays in America’s Major League Soccer.

Just under 10 per cent of fans questioned in the survey of 3500 fans expressed hostility to homosexuality and resented any liberalisation in attitudes towards gay players witnessed in other sports.

Nearly a quarter of all people playing, coaching or refereeing professional football personally know a gay player. This suggests that gay players are known inside the football industry, but are afraid to come out. Why? If it’s because of the possible reaction of crowds, they have nothing to fear. Gareth Thomas, a former Wales rugby union captain who later switched to rugby league, declared he was gay while still at the peak of his professional career. In only one instance did fans react with hostility; for the most part he was not subject to homophobic abuse.

Football fans barrack all players and, it’s true, they often use language that qualifies as homophobic. But in the occasionally baffling logic of football fans, this does not mean they hate, dislike or disapprove of gay players. It is, in the fan’s jargon, “stick” —  sharp but playful remarks designed to put opposing players off their game. There is, for sure, homophobia in football, but it lies in boardrooms and in the offices of football agents. Gay players are being persuaded that it’s in their best interests not to reveal their sexual preferences while they are still playing football professionally. Football clubs may fear the brand implications of being known as the first club in the English or Scottish leagues to have an openly gay player. Agents are no doubt wary of the effects on sponsorship deals – remember agents earn their commission on players’ earnings. The publicist Max Clifford, who is rumoured to have been consulted by at least three gay professional footballers, has revealed that he has advised footballers not to come out because the sport is “steeped in homophobia”.

Of course, it’s much easier to blame fans and introduce tough measures to silence them. Football will soon follow other professional sports and see some of its top players come out: in recent years, rugby union, hurling and tennis have seen star players reveal that they are gay while at the height of their careers.  It is not fans who are stifling them. The taboo surrounding gay players in football is a myth.