My nine-year-old self would have devoured James Milner’s breezy new book, Ask a Footballer, until every U-certificate answer could be recited by heart. If you’ve always been desperate to know what players do when they urgently need the loo during a match, or what kind of coin a referee uses for the toss, this is the stocking filler for you.
However when Milner is asked why so few gay male footballers have come out, he has no easy answers. “It annoys me the media make such a big thing of it,” he replies. “‘Who will be the first gay player in the Premier League?’ A bookmaker started laying odds on it a few years ago, which was just ridiculous. That’s just making it harder.”
A pop at the media. A lament at the bookies. These are easy targets, although not necessarily the right ones. But then Milner says something you may not expect. “I’ve seen people on panel shows say there might be an issue with teammates if a player came out. I don’t think there would be even the slightest issue. Do people honestly think a player would be picked on or shunned because he was gay?”
A few eyebrows may be raised. The number of gay footballers to have come out since Justin Fashanu nearly 30 years ago would barely fill a team’s substitutes’ bench. Only last week Wycombe’s Ryan Allsop was allegedly subjected to homophobic chants from Tranmere fans, with one arrest made, while Sol Campbell was also allegedly abused while the manager of Macclesfield this year.
Yet a new book, The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport, suggests Milner is right and that attitudes among players have changed dramatically. The book’s editors, the academics Rory McGrath, Jamie Cleland and Eric Anderson, make a bold claim at the start of the 566-page opus on the subject. While data “across multiple sports reveals a consistent pattern; a complete renegotiation of the old masculine scripts … it is, perhaps, in soccer where this change is most profound”.
As they note, there are now almost a dozen academic studies in football that indicate near-unanimous acceptance of openly gay teammates. One recent example involved interviews with 15 colleagues of the Swedish player Anton Hysén, who came out in 2010. While one spoke of discomfort when getting changed near Hysén, the researchers found the squad were overwhelmingly supportive and would “go to extreme lengths to defend him” if opposition fans or players were abusive.
The book also quotes a separate recent study in which Hysén was asked the same questions put to Fashanu in a TV interview in 1992, two years after he had come out, and gave very different responses. When Fashanu was asked how his decision had affected his career, he explained friends, coaches and club chairman had shut him out: “There was a lot of backlash. I could not get a job.” Hysén found a completely different response. “I can’t really say it affected me in any way negatively in football at all. I have done so much stuff since coming out, both in and out of sport. There is mostly just positivity.”
In the past few years Hysén has also secured several sponsorship and endorsement contracts – and won season seven of Let’s Dance, Sweden’s answer to Strictly Come Dancing.
Hysén’s sexuality also became an overt part of the dressing-room banter – with his approval. As one player put it: “It’s humour. We joke about everything … religion, women, men, colour – as long as someone doesn’t feel offended by it, I don’t see any reason not to joke about anything.” Another teammate pointed out that humour could “defuse things which normally may be difficult to talk about” and several players agreed Hysén was “usually in the middle of it”.
No one is saying things are perfect. But we have certainly come a long way from the days when Düsseldorf’s Michael Schütz said of Fashanu that: “One wouldn’t play that hard against someone like that, because there would be a certain fear of Aids.” Or even in 2010 when the Football Association was accused of failing to confront homophobic abuse of gay players and supporters after it dropped a television and cinema advertisement which tried to tackle the poor behaviour of fans.
Much of the improvement is down to legal changes as well as a wholesale cultural shift in younger people’s attitudes in the past two decades. And while fans’ attitudes have perhaps not shifted quite as much – especially older ones – a 2012 study of 3,500 supporters found most had “more permissive and liberal” attitudes towards homosexuality than was widely assumed, with only 7% believing there was no place for gay players.
That is still far too high but among the next generation of players, a sea change in attitudes is already visible. The book quotes research on young, elite footballers in Premier League academies which found they “were largely positive in their attitudes toward homosexuality, despite having relatively little contact with gay men in their everyday lives, both inside and outside of football”.
The academics’ rather dry conclusion is that inclusivity could “serve as a roadmap for when one of their teammates does come out”. Or, to put it another way, Milner is right: today’s Justin Fashanu would have a very different reception, at least from his teammates.