Something quite significant although not entirely unexpected happened in the football world recently, more noteworthy than Milan defeating Barcelona in their Champions League first leg or Swansea lifting their first major trophy. What happened was far more uncommon than a simple cup upset; an international player, still active in the game came out as gay. And promptly retired from football.
Robbie Rogers, a 25 year old USA international with 18 caps to his name, an MLS cup winner with Columbus Crew was signed by Leeds United last year. His time with Leeds was plagued by injuries and he was loaned out to Stevenage in League One before being released from Leeds by mutual consent. There had been interest from a number of MLS sides in bringing Rogers back stateside but through his blog Rogers announced that he was gay and that he was leaving football, it was he said “time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football”.
Rogers is certainly a man with interests outside football, he is an owner of menswear brand Halsey for example, but many successful footballers have interests and businesses outside of football. The subtext of Rogers retirement message seemed to say that a life in football and being openly homosexual were incompatible. The heart-breaking case of Justin Fashanu who tragically committed suicide aged only 37 is often referenced whenever the topic of homosexuality in football is raised, Fashanu’s case tends to be used by some as an object lesson of the incompatibility of being openly gay and a professional footballer.
But it has been almost 20 years since Fashanu played in Britain, in that time not one of the thousands of men who have played for a professional club have come out. An ERSI study in Ireland in 2006 stated that 2.7% of Irish men identified themselves as gay, while in the UK census of 2011 1.5% or respondents identified themselves as gay or lesbian or bisexual. It seems unlikely that in this time nobody of the roughly 2,500 professional footballers active each season for the 92 English League clubs has been gay or bisexual.
What does this information imply? Are there simply no gay or bisexual footballers? If we can assume that the vast majority of rational people have move beyond the Alf Garnett attitude that gay people don’t or can’t play sport then we are left with two stark options. Either gay or bisexual people are so excluded and intimidated by attitudes in football that it is not pursued as a career path because that would mean opening oneself up to abuse, discrimination, lurid tabloid headlines and other such vitriol. Or simply there are gay footballers who are simply too uncomfortable to admit that they are gay to the wider world. I think that on a statistical level the first option can be discounted, even if a huge majority of gay or bisexual people were deterred from pursuing a career as a professional footballer because of the difficulties that this would entail it still seems statistically unlikely that British football could go almost twenty years without an openly gay player competing at some level. This leaves us with the option that there must be some gay or bisexual footballers who do not want to open themselves up to the abuse that Justin Fashanu experienced when he came out in 1990.
Robbie Rogers decision to retire seems to suggest that he felt that the world of football could not deal with the reality of an openly gay player. Perhaps in time he might explain his motivations for leaving the game further, perhaps not, that is of course his choice, but Rogers announcement should provoke some soul searching in the footballing community, fans, officials, administrators, players about how the most beloved sport in the world can, the most truly global of games can be so unrepresentative.
Anton Hysen is the only openly gay footballer playing today to my knowledge, he plies his trade for Utsiktens BK in the Swedish third division, and where are the women coaches and administrators, the women who head up National FAs and act as CEOs of major clubs? The world of Football only belatedly seems to be beginning to include female officials, commentators and even journalists.
Why do successful black players find it so hard to make the transition into management and coaching? Why of the 92 clubs in England are only Chris Hughton, Paul Ince, Chris Powell and Chris Kiwomya in management positions as black men? As Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski, impressively demonstrate in Soccernomics football, especially positions of power in football are the preserve of white men. The future of gay footballers (or any other under-represented group) isn’t helped when out of touch egotists like Sepp Blatter make idiotic comments about gay fans travelling to the Qatar World Cup, or former Roma midfield Damiano Tommasi advises gay players to stay in the closet because it might make some other players uncomfortable . The problem seems to be that men like Blatter or Croatian FA head Vlatko Markovic or Steaua Bucurest owner George Becali make wildly homophobic statements yet these are very people in positions of power, running FIFA, National FA’s, Players unions or major clubs. If these are the messages from the top, would you come out if you were a gay player?
The other question that Robbie Rogers announcement raises is whether things are beginning to change. Rogers was inundated with messages of support from fans and also from current and former teammates, it seems that those who shared locker rooms with Rogers didn’t find his sexuality a problem. The players and coaches of the Seattle Sounders recorded a video to show their support while twitter was a frenzy of well-wishers. Perhaps the reaction of young men playing the game as opposed to old men like Blatter running the game heralds a brighter more inclusive future for the Beautiful game. Perhaps it won’t be so much longer before the next person like Robbie Rogers decides that they can come out and be a professional footballer and be safe in the knowledge that fans, teammates and those running the game will not judge or persecute them.