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The recent announcement by German player Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay has once more raised the question of why more gay footballers do not feel confident enough to come out. I’ve conducted research on the subject which reveals what prohibits gay footballers from coming out
When Marcus Urban revealed how, during his professional football career, he lived in fear of having his sexual orientation made public, it surprised no one. The once-promising East German youth international played in the 1980s, after all. Only one prominent athlete was known to be gay: Billie-Jean King’s sexuality became public in 1981 when she was sued by a former lover, who also worked as her secretary. Other gay athletes cautiously waited for the fallout from King’s revelation. Three decades later, there are openly gay athletes, not only in tennis, but in most major sports, even the traditionally macho sports like boxing and rugby. Yet Urban’s sport seems to have preserved its prejudices, as if in aspic. In the entire history of the sport, only two professional players have declared themselves to be gay during their competitive career. English player Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 after threats by a newspaper and, more recently, American Robbie Rogers (pictured above) retired, came out, then resumed playing, making him the only openly gay professional footballer (Anton Hysén, is also outspokenly gay, though he is a semi-professional in a minor Swedish league).
Is football out-of-step with other sports? Is its culture anachronistic – conspicuously old-fashioned? Or are there other, hidden factors that prohibit gay players from being honest and maintain the code of silence that proved such a torture not only to Urban, but to countless other gay footballers? There are gay footballers, probably hundreds if not thousands of them. Why do they not come out? The popular reason is: the hostile reaction of fans. The explanation may have been credible in Urban’s time, but are today’s fans ferociously opposed to gay players? No: in fact over 9 out of 10 fans insist homophobia has no place in modern football. The absence of gay professional players is becoming an embarrassment – it projects the misleading impression that football culture is mired in bigotry. This is not opinion; it is the conclusion of a study of 3500 fans I conducted with my colleague Jamie Cleland. While fans emphatically rejected that they harboured unfriendly feelings towards gay players, they understood the reasons why they were conventionally identified as the cause. They are easy targets who rarely have the opportunity to answer back And there is logic in what they argue: when Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas (below) came out, fans were indifferent, unconcerned about their private lives. Football fans would respond similarly. Because there are no openly gay players outside the USA’s – and I do not intend this to be insulting – somewhat insignificant Major League Soccer, we cannot test this argument.
More plausible explanations lie inside the football industry, where agents and clubs are always sensitive to the market. Agents earn their living from commissions derived from their clients’ (that is, players’) earnings. It is probable that they persuade gay clients not to gamble, at least until their careers are at an end. Clubs are conservative institutions and wish to preserve a status quo that has endured, in some cases, for over a century. “The club with a gay player” is probably not a label relished by football clubs. While officially clubs condemn homophobia and other types of discrimination, it is easy to imagine how they advise players to remain in the closet … at least until they move to another club, or retire completely! While this state of affairs persists, fans get the blame and the real culprits stay hidden. So the scarcity of gay players provides a spurious evidence of the presumed malevolence of fans. And fans can do nothing to destroy a myth that has been in football at least since Urban’s time.
* This is a translation of the author’s article, which was published in the January 2014 edition of the German cultural affairs magazine Kulturaustausch