Gay Premier League footballers need not fear intolerance of minority - it's time to come out
In the days when a black footballer could expect racial abuse from his own supporters as well as those in the away end, there is a moving story about Pat Nevin who made a lone stand in defence of Paul Canoville, the first black player at Chelsea.
Canoville, a talented young man brought up by a single mother in Southall, endured terrible abuse from his own club’s fans after making his debut in 1981 and Nevin, then as now one of the most enlightened players, would begin press conferences by refusing to discuss anything else but how the racism had to stop. Thirty-five years on, and Canoville is a folk hero at Stamford Bridge, as much for what he stood for as what he did, and Nevin’s reaction then is seen as the appropriate response now for any manager or player who witnesses racism in the stands or on the pitch.
The immediate response to the first coming out of a high-profile gay footballer in the Premier League, as trailed in today’s Daily Mirror, is the hand-wringing about the abuse he would endure from crowds. That it would take 20 years to eradicate as it did when black footballers first emerged in the late 1970s - as if the process would have to played out all over again.
This is unrealistic, as anyone who goes to football recognises. There are still parts of the crowd who cannot help themselves, just as there would be in any sample of 60,000 people – and there are no excuses offered for their behaviour. But the vast majority of football fans are not the baying mob ready to isolate and humiliate, or those who once ignorantly abused black players. Most modern-day fans are decent people who have come to watch the game they love.
It has long struck me that the apocalyptic visions of how the first out gay players will be treated are often peddled by a metropolitan sector of the population who cannot conceive of anyone from outside their circles being as tolerant as they are. But, generally speaking, football fans want to see their best in their own team and their own players, and they instinctively recognise courage. And clearly the first out gay players would have to be courageous.
Of course, there would be bad moments. Just as some of the sexist abuse from crowds for the former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro was totally unacceptable. But the country, and the game, would be grown up enough to respond to this effectively and try to do something about those who were intolerant.
Generally speaking, the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s of the dismal attitude towards black players have gone down in football folklore. While no-one would be as complacent as to say racism has gone away from football completely, it now has the stigma attached to it that it deserves and the same goes for any discrimination towards a minority.
It is not simply the culture of racism that was attacked and diminished in that fight, but the culture of intolerance. Football is a much more open place internally. There would be no issue within the dressing room where the blend of race, culture and religion in an elite game - where British footballers are in the minority – has changed the white mono-culture of the past.
Besides, footballers are young, and the young tend to have much fewer issues with the differences between people than the older generations. Robbie Rogers, the USA international retired when he came out in 2013, but is now playing again alongside Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane at Los Angeles Galaxy. In the women’s game there are out high-profile openly gay players, such as Casey Stoney, the England international and Arsenal Ladies captain.
The first high profile gay footballer among Arsenal’s men’s senior team, or Manchester United, or Chelsea, will undoubtedly be a major event in the English game, and understandably so. There will be offence taken on social media, lines drawn, accusations made. Someone will doubtless tweet something insensitive and be pilloried. The first few games from the player in question will be more about listening for any trace of abuse from the crowd rather than the result.
Then, after a few weeks of excitement it will die down. Someone else, doing something else, will find themselves trending – and in football we will all go back to complaining about the standards of refereeing.