Attitudes to homosexuality in sport – what are they in 2011?
Attitudes to homosexuality in sport – what are they in 2011?
By Steven Oldham, Sports Correspondent
“It has improved in the last 20 years, but change is not happening fast enough”
John Amaechi, the NBA’s first openly gay player, made the above comment at the close of an open debate held as part of Manchester Pride’s fringe event in the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road.
He was joined on the panel by editor of best selling gay magazine, Attitude, Matthew Todd, Graham Liver, Chairman of Village Manchester Football Club and Louise Englefield, Director of Pride Sports.
Traditionally, in the macho world of professional sport, (historically male), there has been a stigma about coming out - men were men, and that was it.
However, in recent years, there have been feelings that the tide is changing following cricketer Steven Davies and rugby star Gareth Thomas both coming out.
So, why do sports stars feel so reluctant to reveal their true preferences?
“It’s tough for sportspeople, no doubt,” said John, before adding: “When I came out in my autobiography, guys who would trip over their beards the day before to get my autograph were pointing and laughing at me.”
Before his admission in Man In The Middle in 2007, Amaechi was known as Britain’s best basketball player, playing in the NBA. He played top level basketball for four years, two each at Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz.
Such was Amaechi’s stock, he was offered – and felt able to refuse – a multimillion dollar offer from then NBA champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.
After this, he grudgingly admits he became ‘that gay guy’.
How did his former colleagues feel about his decision to come out?
“Some of them were cool with it. Others didn’t want to know – others used the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mantra that’s been adopted in the US Army. There are a few who will speak to me... as long as no-one knows they’re doing it,” he reflects.
Louise Englefield says attitudes are changing in Manchester, albeit slowly.
“There are 27 LGBT sports groups based in Manchester now, compared to none fifteen years ago – we’ve also been asked to help support a new cycling group because there isn’t one for members of our community,” she said.
Some people though, question the notion of such teams – surely, segregating gay people from mainstream sports ostracises the community even more? The separation must surely show there is reluctance on behalf of the gay community to mix with the rest of society?
“Definitely not,” says Louise, before adding: “In our experience, many of our team’s members have had bad experiences in sport. A lot of them haven’t competed since school - notoriously a hostile environment. Teams for LGBT people are about inclusion, and providing a comfortable environment for everyone involved.”
“It’s safety in numbers, people go where they feel safe,” he said.
However, the Pride Games can only do so much.
“We do our best but we do not receive funding from Sport England – we’re one minority too far,” she added.
What are the ideas then, behind the Pride Games?
“We challenge homophobia in sport – but unfortunately it’s the tip of a very large iceberg. We need to change the culture of sport, but it will take significant investment,” Louise said.
Louise and her colleagues work with LGBT sports groups and clubs to offer support, organisation and funding.
Surrey and England cricketer Steven Davies made history earlier this year by becoming the first international to out himself following an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
Matthew Todd, of Attitude magazine, said that Steven was initially unsure about pushing himself as a role model.
He said: “Steven was a bit reluctant at first. I’m sure this wasn’t because he is ashamed of who he is – he’s the same as Gareth Thomas – he wants to be known for his profession first and foremost.”
However, Steven agreed to be featured in Attitude and was the cover star for February’s issue.
“I think he realised that he could do a lot of good in his role as a sportsperson,” said Matthew.
So, we have openly gay competitiors in professional rugby, cricket and basketball, as well as Australian diver Matthew Mitcham. However, for some, one big obstacle to acceptance in sport remains. Football.
“Football is undoubtedly the big one,” said Amaechi, before adding: “You don’t get millions of people ice skating or playing handball every week.”
Only Anton Hysen, a little known Swedish footballer (playing in their fourth division) is openly gay. Statistics mean there are undoubtedly gay players at the top level, but the case of Justin Fashanu, some 20 years ago, still lingers over the sport like a raincloud.
Fashanu was the first black player to command a £1million transfer fee, but unfortunately he is only remembered for being the first player to come out, and following unfounded accusations of sexual assault against him, committed suicide in 1998.
“It’s a great shame no one remember Justin for what he was – a fantastically talented player,” said Amaechi.
Given this grim case study, how would the media react to a footballer coming out now?
“I think they would be very sympathetic,” said Louise, before adding: “I think media organisations and papers have realised that there is a lot of LGBT readership – not so much the pink pound, but people want to read about this sort of thing.”
One beneficiary of the Manchester Pride movement are Village Manchester Football Club (VMFC). Pete Ransom plays for them and doubles up as their Communications Officer.
“Pride is very much a two-way thing for us,” he said, before adding: “We can meet new people, and introduce them to the team, and give something back to the community.”
VMFC received a donation of £500 last year from Manchester Pride, which helped them with new equipment, including bibs, balls and cones. They also now get over 20 players coming to each training session, which is helping competition in the squad.
VMFC play in a standard league – not the Gay Football Supporters’ Network, which Pete says does not cause consternation with other gay teams.
“We’ve shown we can compete in normal leagues – our second team finished second in the league last year, and we’re second in ours at the moment,” he said.
“If you want to play for us, we’re not bothered if you’re gay, bi or straight,” he added.
As the sole gay team in their league, how have their opponents reacted?
Pete said: “We probably get one comment per season, which does not constitute homophobic abuse at all really – football fans will know what it’s like on the pitch – there’s a lot of banter.”
At the grass roots level then, there does not seem to be a problem. So what about the professional game?
He said: “We see a lot of people clamouring for pro players to come out. Personally, I don’t think it will happen soon, and if it does, it will be toward the end of their careers.”
“I think it’s good that Gareth and Steven are comfortable enough to come out, but I think it will be another couple of years at least before it happens in football,” he said.
When asked what reaction to such an event would be, he was sympathetic.
He said: “I feel sorry for the first one to do it, because of all the attention they will get. I doubt it will be as bad when Fashanu came out. In terms of gay rights and acceptance this country has moved forward a lot in the last 20 years.”
John Amaechi agreed with this, however he had stern words for football’s top powers.
“The problem doesn’t lie with the idiot in the stands who shouts ‘faggot’,” he said, adding: “it’s in the boardroom where the problem is. Football is a sport that doesn’t like women in the boardroom, blacks unless they’re running up and down a pitch or gays in the locker room.”
He continued: “For football to truly move with the times, the old timers need to be cleared out. The idiots in suits have to go. It’s institutionalised in the sport, right from the top down – how much money did the FA spend on the Respect campaign for referees? A tiny percentage of that has gone to combating homophobia and promoting acceptance.”