Playing it straight

This week, cricketer Steven Davies became the latest to add his name to a very short list of openly gay professional sports players.

It is, of course, paradoxical that this should be such massive news; the issue is that his sexuality should not be an issue, and nor should it be for any other homosexual athletes.

But the fact remains that it is. The England and Surrey wicketkeeper is the most recent of a ‘spate’ of sports stars to come out over the last couple of years.

That this spate comprises a grand total of three high-profile players to have done so while still playing since 1990, when footballer Justin Fashanu revealed he was gay, is a sign of progress but mostly a sorry indictment of sport’s failings; it has – and this applies to some sports more than others – some way to go before it can be seen as truly inclusive.

Davies, Irish hurler Donal Óg Cusack and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas have all followed in the footsteps of Fashanu.

That they are in good company means they can at least avoid the same sense of isolation that Fashanu suffered from, and that times have changed enough for Davies to say he has no worries about abuse from fans means they are unlikely to lead the same kind of tormented life that led Fashanu to commit suicide in 1998.

Davies also said that he had been helped in reaching his decision to publicly reveal his sexuality by Thomas having done the same, and hopes his act will encourage other homosexuals within the sporting world to follow suit.

But the ghost of Fashanu is one that continues to haunt sport, particularly in football. You have to wonder how the modern game would accommodate an openly gay footballer, and the problems stem not only from fans but from the governing bodies.

How can a footballer feel confident coming out in the knowledge that FIFA have, in electing Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host, allowed the game’s showpiece event to be hosted in a country where homosexuality is illegal? While at the same time, UEFA’s punishments for homophobia – on the rare occasions they intervene rather than leaving controversial matters to national football associations – border on the laughable.

Albania coach Otto Baric, having told a newspaper that he would never allow a gay in his team, was fined €1,825 by European football’s governing body.

CFR Cluj manager Sorin Cartu was, by contrast, fined €10,000 for damaging a dugout during a Champions League tie. So we wait with bated breath to see the hefty fine that UEFA will no doubt hand to Croatian FA head Vlatko Markovic, who spoke of his gratitude for the fact that ‘only healthy people play football’ as he would not allow a homosexual to play for the Croatian national team.

That’s not to absolve some fans from the blame for contributing towards any player’s reticence to come out, though.

It’s a minority, but a vocal minority,  who continue to chant and shout homophobic abuse from the stands at present and in the very recent past towards players who aren’t even gay; Graeme Le Saux, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole have all been victims, disorientating though it is to read the latter’s name in the same sentence as the word ‘victim’. Unless it’s accompanied by ‘work experience student’ and ‘gunshot’, of course.

We, as fans, can’t really say what the likely reaction to a team-mate coming out would be within Premier League dressing rooms, but the fact that only Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle was willing to comment on the matter for a BBC documentary last year speaks volumes.

You’d like to think attitudes would be more sympathetic than Brian Clough’s branding of his own player, Fashanu, as a ‘poof’. But the reality – among players, fans, and football’s governing bodies – is far less clear, and for that reason, you can’t blame gay footballers for remaining firmly inside the closet at present.

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