Why Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out is newsworthy

by Ben Cullimore

Thomas HitzlspergerOn Wednesday, the former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger became the most high-profile football player to come out as gay. As was the case when American winger Robbie Rogers came out in February last year, the vast majority of the football world reacted with messages of congratulations and support, praising Hitzlsperger’s bravery and courage.

But there were those that, while not necessarily criticising him directly, criticised the newsworthiness of his announcement, claiming that “nobody cares” and “it’s not important”. These people have totally missed the point, and have also seemingly forgotten what a hostile and horrible sport football can often be, and how important it is for people like Hitzlsperger and Rogers to use their statuses as world-renowned players to help end discrimination in the sport once and for all.

Whether it involves racism, sexism or homophobia, football’s dark side is well documented. The sport’s governing bodies like to talk the talk, often announcing new measures to crack down on discrimination, but, more often than not, they stop short of walking the walk, with measly punishments being dished out to clubs and players that end up doing little to deter them from reoffending in the future.

Take, for example, the £10,000 fine that the Croatian Football Federation received in June 2008 after their fans were found guilty of “displaying a racist banner and showing racist conduct” in their Euro 2008 quarter-final tie against Turkey, which was £70,000 less than the fine that Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner received for promoting a betting company on his underwear in the 2012 edition of the competition. What sort of message does this send to the guilty parties and, most importantly, the young fans that are watching back at home?

Of course, there are active steps being taken by some authorities within football to try and eradicate homophobia, alongside other forms of discrimination. In England, the Football Association are currently working alongside organisations like the Justin Foundation, which was set up in 2008, ten years after the tragic suicide of former player Justin Fashanu, who came out as gay in 1990.

But these are few and far between, and as long as football’s governing bodies decide to crack down harder on unlicensed sponsorship than they do on discrimination, nothing is likely to change.

And that is precisely why Hitzlsperger’s announcement is newsworthy. With the authorities seemingly afraid or unwilling to take substantial action against those that discriminate against others based on their colour, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, it is up to players like Hitzlsperger to use their status within the sport to change it for the better.

In an interview with the German newspaper Die Zelt, Hitzlsperger himself admitted that the issue of homosexuality is still a taboo within the sport, claiming that “being gay is a topic that is ignored in football and not a serious topic in the changing room”, and that, during his playing career, “it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays”.

Although Robbie Rogers has returned to the game and is currently playing with LA Galaxy in the MLS, the former Leeds United player felt it necessary to retire in order to come out, and this is a reflection of the problems that are rife within the sport.

Hopefully his return and Hitzlsperger’s announcement will make it easier for other gay athletes to come out, as well as helping to further the debate on how to end homophobic discrimination in sport, particularly as we approach two major sporting events, the Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, that are being held in countries with notoriously poor legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

They, and other athletes like Jason Collins, Gareth Thomas, and Nicola Adams who have also come out publically, are extremely brave and inspiring individuals, and their comments will surely help rid sport of the homophobic cancer that plagues it.

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