Professional footballers private lives are anything but private. Every aspect of their lives are covered as interest in what players get up to off the pitch increases alongside their celebrity status. Nothing is safe from the long lens of the paparazzi as they try to catch footballers at their weakest, stumbling out of a club in the early hours or getting involved in a brawl. Some players actively seek attention whereas others go to extra lengths to avoid it. Fans accept that these things will happen and appear to be ok with everything except one thing – homosexuality.
The number of gay players that have “come out” can be counted on a single hand which is an indication of a wider issue within football. It’s seen by many in the game as a taboo subject, one to look the other way rather than tackle it head on, much in the same way that racism in the game has been treated. For the players themselves who hid this secret, they do so to protect themselves as well as the people they love. The fear that most gay footballers have is being ostracized by not only the clubs fans but also by their teammates. Only a few players have come out but others feel unable to do so and resort to hiding their secret in fear of the reaction it would bring.
It has been 23 years since Justin Fashanu came out publicly as football’s first gay player. The brother of Wimbledon forward John Fashanu, Justin started his professional career in 1978 and played for a host of clubs across England, Scotland, US and Canada but hid his sexuality for a majority of his career until finally coming out in an exclusive interview with British newspaper, The Sun in 1990. Unfortunately for Fashanu, what was meant to be a single piece turned into a series of sensationalized fabricated stories designed to sell more papers. Fashanu’s career was in tatters and struggled to get a full-time contract following the story, with no club willing to take him on. After bouncing around various leagues, Fashanu eventually retired in 1997, taking up a coaching job at a US club, Maryland Mania in the lower divisions. A year later, after an incident with a then 17-year-old male, Fashanu was accused of sexual assault in the US and fled back to the UK. Depressed and unwilling to put his family through further heartbreak, Fashanu committed suicide by hanging himself in a garage in London.
This week US international midfielder Robbie Rogers followed in Fashanu’s footsteps by coming out. The 25-year-old former Leeds player is only the fourth footballer to publicly declare his homosexuality (Fashanu, Swedish defender Anton Hysen and former French striker Olivier Rouyer being the others) . Having been released by Leeds during the January transfer window, Rogers has decided to step away from football and take this opportunity to say who he really was:
“For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show who I really was because of fear. I always thought I could hide this secret. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined… I will always be thankful for my career. It was my escape, my purpose, my identity. But now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football”
He went on to talk about the struggle he went through to come out to his friends and family:
“Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret. Secrets can cause so much internal damage. People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay. Now my secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”
The FA were quick to offer their support to Rogers, if potentially with an alterative motive for doing so. After announcing a six-point action plan last year to make the game more inclusive, including tackling homophobia and transphobia , they have been looking for a figurehead for their campaign. Rogers, as a young now former pro, will be seen as an ideal fit so the FA are likely to pursue this angle with the player. Rogers may decide to take on the challenge but more realistically he will likely shy away from it as its clear from his statement that he needs time away from the game to live his life. Regardless the FA will persist with their campaign as they attempt to change the mindset of fans and players alike to be more accepting of people’s lifestyle choices. The perception is that in the 20 years since the Fashanu story broke, little has changed but some disagree. Current Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard believes attitudes have changed, at least amongst the players, with many able to accept a gay footballer within their ranks. In a recent blog post, he wrote about his thoughts and how a change is needed within football to become more inline with society’s views around the subject:
“As a footballer I think first and foremost that a homosexual colleague is afraid of the reception he could get from the fans. My impression is that the players would not have a problem accepting a homosexual. Homosexuality in football is a taboo subject. The atmosphere on the pitch and in the stands is tough. The mechanisms are primitive, and it is often expressed through a classic stereotype that a real man should be brave, strong and aggressive. And it is not the image that a football fan associates with a gay person. The problem for me is that a lot of football fans are stuck in a time of intolerance that does not deserve to be compared with modern society’s development in the last decades. While the rest of the world has been more liberal, civilised and less prejudiced, the world of football remains stuck in the past when it comes to tolerance. Homosexuals are in need of a hero. They are in need of someone who dares to stand up for their sexuality”
Rogers now leaves the game he loved behind so that he can go and explore his own true life away from the pitch. To many its a sad reflection of where football is and how, as much as many would have hoped that it would have evolved, it simply hasn’t. In a global game where racism, violence and sectarianism still raise their ugly head from time to time, is there really any hope for a change in mindset around sexuality? There are other gay players in the game who would like to come out as Rogers has done but live with the fear that he had of what will happen if they do. Many will remember what happened to Fashanu and saw his career spiral out of control after coming out so will be reluctant to do so themselves, at least until they retire. Efforts are being made to make it easier and more acceptable for players to do so but it demands a cultural shift that football may not be able to do in one fail swoop without significant backing from all involved.