The most valuable resource of learning we have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited by our own perspective.
- Robert Meehan, Poet and Author.
I always teach my students to ask questions. I encourage them to push boundaries, to think of new beginnings and different destinations. I don’t want any student of mine to feel hemmed in by social parameters that would halt their march to greatness. You don’t beat the system by surrendering; you beat it by learning and increasing your knowledge base.
And this is where I start this article - with a learning experience. Last year, my wife and I took our three young children to Brighton to visit my sister-in-law and unbeknown to us our visit coincided with Europe’s largest Pride festival. While we hadn’t planned it, we were interested by the size and scope of the event. The extent of community and civic support was breath taking. The inclusive approach of the people was equally clear. On the Saturday we walked our kids to nearby Preston Park where the day time celebrations ensued. It was an epic spectacle. Over 100,000 people crammed together to listen to music, eat food, scare themselves to death on fairground rides and enjoy each other’s company. Like a very pink Glastonbury, if you will. Brighton & Hove Albion were well represented and key supporters of the event.
The place was packed with families of every skin colour and religions of all denominations were present as their kids embraced the joyful oneness of the unifying event. Perhaps they attended out of sheer curiosity, or perhaps they were there to show support - maybe both. But they were there. I could see flags draped around the shoulders and waists of jovial revellers from nearly every country in the Atlas. Likewise football shirts of nearly every popular club were evident from teams across the Globe. It was a great experience for our kids, who witnessed for themselves the colours, smells and cultural markers that exhibit both our differences and celebrate our similarities.
I know what you’re thinking and I can confirm - this IS a football opinion article - just bear with me, for the next chapter in this tale will seem like the blurb from a gay fiction rom-com; A chance encounter on a pleasant summers evening, just as the sun was falling…
But it’s not.
It’s more like an advert for a corny self-help book for men approaching or even in the full flow of their 40’s - Realigning the Middle Aged Me.
Once the revellers had all but gone and the park closed up for the night, I took the opportunity to walk our dog around the local area too see what Brighton looked like beyond the festival of Rainbows. As I leisurely perused the large Victorian terraces in the neighbourhood and admired expensive cars I couldn’t afford, I suddenly heard some raucous laughter. I looked up the leafy, tree lined street and walking towards me were five big lads, all a bit drunk and to a man - dressed in spangled, glitter infused, skin tight Power Rangers outfits. I was caught out. I heard them admiring my French Bulldog from 50 feet away and knew for sure they would stop and ask about her. Perhaps only a psychologist or a sociologist can explain my reticence to move forward and my hesitation to engage. Or maybe it was because I’ve just never been a big fan of the Power Rangers.
But as the lycra laden lads approached me, I was torn. I couldn’t quite find a convenient exit and internally I refused to accept I needed one.
‘Can we stroke your dog please mate?’ bellowed the Red Power Ranger.
Once I’d agreed to my part in this small negotiation, Rangers of all colours made a big fuss of my dog, much to her delight. Oddly she had no preference as to which colour, size or shape Ranger she liked the most, she accepted them on face value and judged them only on cordiality and kindness. Interesting…
Blue Ranger noticed the Sunderland motif on my polo shirt and broke the ice in a way all football fans find safe. He asked about the club I support.
‘You Sunderland then?’ he asked in a deep London accent. I nodded with a smile. ‘I’m Millwall,’ he replied.
I looked at him and he looked at me, both acknowledging the paradox of that statement and the fact he had the words Mighty Morphin written on his chest.
‘Believe it or not mate, I don’t go to games dressed like this,’ he smiled.
Instantly, he asked about what was then our last escape from relegation and we went on to discuss his hopes and dreams about the upcoming Millwall season. He was knowledgeable about his team and passionate about the game. The fact he had the words Turbo into Morphin Time written on his hat was irrelevant. All other contexts melted away in the warm air and all that was left were two football supporters having a right old chin wag about their teams. The lads soon left and I walked my dog back slightly annoyed at myself, but asking important questions - questions that eventually prompted this article.
I consider myself a very non-judgmental individual. I think of myself as a tolerant, open minded modern man, unbothered by the consensual choices made by those who live their lives differently to mine. As long as those choices preserve peace, justice and the rule of law, I support people’s rights to live as they do. My wife and I are proud to work in environments that celebrate the promotion of equality and diversity and pass those principles of tolerance to our children. But even in my previously smug state of prideful acceptance of all that is different, I still hesitated when all 5 Power Rangers headed my way and I don’t think it’s because I was frightened they would morph together into a robotic dinosaur capable of bad Kung Fu.
So I had to ask myself, that despite what’s on the outside - this supposedly tolerant man; was there still something on the inside, subconscious or otherwise that would encourage me to judge someone else - even momentarily? Why wouldn’t Blue Ranger like football? Why wouldn’t he support Millwall? Why wouldn’t he be knowledgeable about the sport because he likes to indulge in a bit of Cosplay with his mates? I realised that prejudices are difficult to shake if you never fully accept they’re there. Only then can you perform the necessary personal exorcism to rid them.
My last article was about the taboo of mental health in football and how fans, clubs and governing bodies approach the subject. Mental health to some degree is easier to write about because I have personal experience and consequently feel emboldened to do so. But when it comes to homophobia or racism, I feel uncomfortable covering the topic because I’m neither part of the LGBT community nor am I an ethnic minority. What right do I have as part of the comfortable majority to discuss such a sensitive subject, something that many will feel strongly about on both sides of the fence?
But as I’ve researched the topic and studied the views and opinions of those inside and outside the game, it seems evident that if homophobia or indeed any abuse of a minority group can be expelled from the football, then the majority have a crucial, if not defining role to play in its exclusion. Or as ex Sunderland winger and now Patron of Sunderland Pride, Kieron Brady beautifully puts it:
Intolerance of the minority is sustained by the indifference of the majority.
From a purely footballing perspective it’s quite often the players who seem to take the rap for the lack of openly gay players in the game. The crudeness of the dressing room, the unforgiving nature of banter, the lack of education or understanding among men from predominantly lower to working class backgrounds. But because players are the focal point of the game as a whole it’s far too easy and somewhat lazy to look to them as the focal point of all the ills that exist around the game. So what of the players? Do they concur that gay or bisexual players are terrified to come out to their peers and colleagues due to the stigma those same colleagues would then attach to that courageous pronouncement?
David Preece, former Sunderland keeper, now top sports writer and pundit disagrees:
In all honesty, I couldn’t think of a more welcoming place to reveal your sexual preferences than inside a footballer’s dressing room.
(When I was playing) I’m 100% sure that every other player in our squad would not bat an eyelid if one of the lads called a private meeting and announced to us that he was gay. His proclamation would be met with a hug and an appreciation of how hard it must have been for him to come out.
Former Chelsea and Blackburn player Chris Sutton, supports this view:
There is no dressing room that I played in — at Norwich, Blackburn, Chelsea, Celtic, Birmingham or Aston Villa — that would react with anything other than support.
The fiercest dressing room was at Celtic. There were strong characters in Neil Lennon, Henrik Larsson, John Hartson and Craig Bellamy. But I can honestly say that if anyone had come out, the rest would have offered unwavering support.
There are a list of other former and current players who agree from David Beckham, Joey Barton, French powerhouse Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid’s superstar, Antoine Griezmann.
When asked if he would support a colleague in the dressing room brave enough to make the stand Pogba declared:
Why not? It's a human being. What he does in his private life has nothing to do with the player. You just have to respect him- the man. That's it. It's all about respect. It's all about equality everywhere in the world. We are all equal when we play football.
I would respect any footballer who chose to come out as gay. Absolutely 100%.
He further insisted that, were he gay, he would make his sexuality public. But suggested a reason why some colleagues may be hesitant:
There are a lot of bad people in football and players can be afraid to go to stadiums and get abused.
The PFA disclosed at the end of 2016 that they were in discussions with 8 premier league stars about the possibility of coming out. That’s not counting the gay or bisexual players living secretly in torment. Thus far as we head speedily to the edges of 2017 not one of those players have felt comfortable enough, supported enough, or safe enough to make any personal declarations. Part of me thinks why should they? Does every straight player have to make an announcement that he’s officially heterosexual? The thought is preposterous.
But straight players are part of the comfortable majority who, like me, enjoy the privilege of being who they are because they are protected by the safety net of social traditions. It’s not that easy for a gay or bisexual player who will have a myriad of other issues to worry about when it comes to rocking those social traditions and thus alienating others more used to maintaining those structures.
For me, professional footballers aren’t the problem and nor do they have the largest responsibility to bear when it comes to tackling this issue. Yes they have the platform but many are already using it to promote respect and equality. Of course you can’t account for every person and there have been high profile cases of individual players who have participated in homophobic abuse or language. Andre Gray complained in less than 140 characters:
Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #Makesmesick
Likewise Michael Johnson the former Birmingham City player who had to step down from the FA’s Inclusion Committee because during a television interview in 2012, aired on BBC2 he described homosexuality as ‘Detestable.’
On the whole, however, I think players in general are using their platforms positively and appropriately.
Incidentally, both of the aforementioned players have taken back their remarks in sorrowful fashion with Gray announcing fervently he was not homophobic and that he was a totally different person now to who he was in the years he made that statement. I accept that. We all have to evolutionise our views, often whether we like it or not. Learning must take place for personal and societal growth and it’s good that Gray has owned his views, apologised and moved forward as a person - undoubtedly learning something along the way. It’s positive for him and everyone around him.
I’ve always felt the biggest stake holders in the game are the fans. For me the game exists for the fans, is maintained by the fans and loved by the fans. We are a powerful force and we outnumber players by millions. Largely fans are brilliant, hardy folk, who latch onto community challenges and through the power of football and the global network of like-minded, salt of the earth football supporters, great things can be achieved. Sunderland fans need only look at the Bradley Lowery Foundation and the millions raised for cancer research - via the tireless work of his impressive family and the almost unprecedented support of the global football community.
In a poll of supporters carried out by the BBC it revealed that an overwhelming majority, 82% said they would be comfortable with an openly gay player playing in their team. Though, 18% polled said they would prefer it if the player kept it to themselves and 8% said they would never support their team again if their team fielded a gay player. On average attendance last season that would have been approximately 3000 people walking out of the Stadium of Light. I find that in interesting statistic. Imagine for a moment if your son or daughter, brother or sister came out and you found that 8% of teachers refused to teach them or 8% of surgeons refused to perform life- saving surgery based on their sexuality. There would be public outcry and rightly so.
While FA Chairman Greg Clarke suggested to a government panel that football fans would make it impossible for gay players to come out, I completely disagree. The BBC’s poll suggests the majority of fans would be comfortable and that is an encouraging place to start. It does not suggest to me that homophobia is rampant and that the very idea of an openly gay player is alien to the majority of fans. Quite the opposite. I think the secret of eradicating such abuse lays in the hands of the very people who own this game - emotionally, financially and romantically - the supporters. But to achieve effective progress we will need help from Football’s economic and marketing strength and the influence of its governing bodies.
This year, our club Sunderland have joined forces with Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation, and partnered with the Home Office to release a series of informative and engaging resources that raise awareness of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) discrimination within football stadia. Another step forward which is crucial. The clubs in unison with the supporters can work together, along with professionals inside the game and supportive institutions from outside the game.
Psychologist’s believe that football supporters are attracted to football because of the comfort of fraternity, the safety of unity and a secure sense of belonging - even when things are terrible. In fact consoling each other is part of the process of being who we are. In that sense we are unifiers, we are communal and we are an unorthodox family. Is it beyond the realms of possibilities that such unifying qualities cannot outstretch their arms to others, who may have traditionally felt excluded from our bond?
Former Sunderland winger Kieron Brady who now runs an education and training company called Celebrate Identity and Challenge Intolerance works in both grass roots and the power structure of the game to teach and enlighten those in football about the importance of inclusion. Brady stated:
I would love to think that a player would have the mental resolve and emotional confidence to be prepared to (come out). Football should always be, and be seen to be a force for good and that discrimination in any form is an enemy of what football and sport hopes to achieve.
Over this last weekend alone charity matches have been played to great applause and rightly so. The Playing For Grenfell and the Bradley Lowery Charity football matches are just two very recent reminders about the goodness continually engendered from this beautiful game. They highlight the mini miracles of a shared community and the compassionate, supportive nature of the everyday fan. What other greatness can be achieved from football’s patrons who inhabit its terraces? We unite for many worthwhile causes and the fight against intolerance and hatred is a cause that can not only enhance football, but society itself and we have a responsibility to play our part.