The news that two Premier League players may come out is no longer shocking. But the response they receive will be the true test of football’s tolerance
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast weekend, news broke that two Premier League players may be ready to come out. The story has once again teased us with the prospect that English football could finally be ready to join the 21st century. Yet it’s the way in which the news was covered – a shift from tabloid exposé to Twitter debate – that offers real signs of encouragement.
The Mirror’s headline was designed to shock, yet fell flat; pricked hours later by a breezy tweet from Manchester United’s Luke Shaw denying his involvement. With its peace sign and smily face it was hardly the work of the Westboro Baptist Church, yet some were quick to condemn his simple denial as evidence of entrenched homophobia in players.
Quite the opposite. More likely it’s the long-term lack of faith in both players and fans – surely the two most important groups involved – by governing bodies, pressure groups and the media that has added to the swirling culture of fear within the game. Compare Shaw’s tweet to the FA’s bizarre anti-homophobia filmjust five years ago – they’re worlds apart – mainly because this generation of players simply don’t have the same fear factor when it comes to sexuality. All the campaign films and rainbow laces in the world are no substitute for the carefree potency of youth with 140 characters to spare.
Neither are they a match for the power of player solidarity and self-policing by fans. In years gone by this may have meant a cheeky message under a club shirt in regard to the former, and a stern talking-to on the terraces in the case of the latter. The arrival of Twitter however, amplifies a positive perspective more than ever. Put it this way – if a player came out tomorrow, could you seriously see anything but a flood of supportive tweets from fellow footballers and fans?
Take a look at the comments section under any recent story about footballers coming out. Aside from the odd flash of bigotry one theme keeps returning – boredom. It’s the story that won’t go away, yet the reaction of football fans is not one of hostility, but weariness. Replies such as “Who cares?” and “It’s 2015” suggest a growing anger not directed at the players in question but the debate itself.
Social networking has – as traditional gay bars and nightclubs continue to close – provided a more subtle and nuanced platform for sexuality full stop. Rugby player Sam Stanley quietly featured his boyfriend in a series of Instagram photos before coming out, thus diffusing any drama from the situation. There’s no reason for today’s footballers to suffer the same clunky red-top outings endured by early 2000s boy-band members (often given little choice or notice) when a tweeted pic of a loved one can filter out slowly across social media making the same point. A shift from lurid to lovely.
That’s not to say conditions are perfect. While social media may offer a newfound subtlety and control to the coming-out process, it brings with it a global audience. Perhaps this, more than any other reason, may explain why English football has teetered on the brink for the past 10 years. The old enemy – the English press – was at least a familiar one. The worldwide web offers less cosy adversaries.
Yet if English players do choose to step out on to that global stage they won’t be alone. They’ll be joined by the US’s Robbie Rogers, Sweden’s Anton Hysén and Germany’s Thomas Hitzlsperger (an average age of 28 between them) as well as countless other lower-league players to have come out in the last five years and prospered.
It might be naive to suggest that as with the closeted teenager (and there are definite parallels here for football) the only thing to fear is fear itself, yet those who suggest this new generation of players and fans can’t deal with their colleagues and heroes’ sexuality could perhaps use a reminder.