My views on the ongoing issue of homophobia in sport.

On December 28th 2011, Liverpool forward Luis Suarez was handed an 8 match ban and a £40,000 fine for alleged racial remarks towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Everyone has either seen everything or thrown their two cents in on this particular issue so I’m not going to go into much detail over it.

The Football Association released a 115 page report on the Suarez-Evra racism issue where it detailed their enquiry and subsequent punishment handed out to Luis Suarez, in it they are quoted as saying that “the FA found that ‘Mr Suarez used insulting words towards Mr Evra during the match contrary to FA Rule E 3(1)’ and that the insulting words used by Mr Suarez included a reference to Mr Evra’s colour within the meaning of Rule E 3(2).’ ”

The FA’s Rule E 3(1) clearly states that “A Participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

Meanwhile the FA’s Rule E 3(2) states that ‘In the event of any breach of Rule E 3(1) including a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability (an “aggravating factor”), a Regulatory Commission shall consider the imposition of an increased sanction.”. Now while all this is very well and good concerning the recent racism case, there is that part in Rule E(2) that got me intrigued, the mention of “sexual orientation”.

Football was always seen as the working man's game, maybe not so much now with the billionaire owners and millionaire footballers, but at its grass roots it was and always will be a working mans game, unlike cricket, rugby union and tennis which have always been regarded as a more middle to upper class sport. Now this is a generalisation on my part but the majority of the working man used to be very staunch in their views regarding race, gender or sexual orientation, for example the sheer abuse that John Barnes received while playing for Watford, Liverpool and England was appalling. Female referees and assistant referees are only now making their way into the men’s game, who can forget the controversy that surrounded when Andy Gray and Richard Keys were caught on their microphones making sexist remarks towards female assistant referee Sian Massey? The most horrendous story though would have to be the tragic story of Justin Fashanu, England’s first £1 million black player but more importantly England’s first and to this day only openly gay professional footballer.

Justin Fashanu began his career with Norwich City and it was from there that he moved to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for £1million. It was at Forest when upon discovery of Justin’s sexuality; Brian Clough banned him from training with the other first teamers, making him train alone. In his autobiography, Clough recounts a dressing down he gave Fashanu after hearing rumours that he was going to gay bars. "'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose.' 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's.' 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?" It’s of no surprise that Justin’s career with Nottingham Forest did not turn out to be a very long one, from joining them in 1981 he was loaned out to Southampton in 1982 and then sold to Notts County the same year for only £150,000 a massive loss on what he signed for.

It was not until 1990 that Justin felt comfortable enough to come out to the press about his sexual orientation with an exclusive interview in ‘The Sun’ but the response he received was that of utter contempt and anger from other professional sportsmen, even Justin’s own brother John Fashanu (best known for his time at Wimbledon) publicly disowned his own brother. When asked about it at a later date, Justin revealed that it “earned him a considerable sum of money but he says he was offered even more by others who wanted him to stay in the closet”.

The damage had been inflicted on Justin his whole career and in 1998 after an alleged incident with a 17 year old boy in The United States, Justin fled back to England and on the 3rd May 1998 he was found hanged in a deserted garage. In his suicide note he stated: "I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.” What he did not know was that the case had already been dropped due to lack of evidence.

Justin’s story is a very tragic one which all stemmed from homophobia from colleagues, crowds and even his own family and at that time in football the Football Association never acted on it. The same can be said about racism towards players in the 70’s & 80’s.

I, in no way condone any sort of racism as no matter how people try to spin it, it is a vile and degrading thing. You are mocking a person for something that is not a choice, who the hell cares where somebody grew up or what ethnic background they have, as Eric Cantona once said "When races come together, cultures are enriched." I am glad that the FA have acted and made an example out of Suarez as it shows that in this current day and age where people’s views and opinions are a lot more open that they will not stand for any sort of racism but going under the same premise, if and I do mean IF Luis Suarez had called Patrice Evra a “queer” or a “f***ing homo” (and that’s not saying that he would ever do such a thing or that Evra was in fact gay) would the punishment have been so severe or perhaps the bigger question, would it have even been reported to the officials and the FA?

Justin Fashanu’s case is currently the only case that we have to base on what would happen if a top flight English footballer came out as gay and its repercussions were horrible, so are players more tolerant of the abuse they take?

One of the biggest examples of this was the cruel homophobic chants, jokes and remarks made towards Graeme Le Saux throughout his entire career. Le Saux is not gay but due to the fact that he stayed away from the laddish culture of drinking, chasing women and being slightly volatile and openly expressed interest in the arts and was a keen reader, it was assumed that he must be gay and for his 14 year career he received nothing but abuse for it. In his autobiography he wrote that he dreaded going to work with his colleagues. By the time he got into training, he was so nervous he felt sick. "I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors,” Le Saux endured the taunts of everyone from team-mates, fans and players. One of the most infamous accounts of this bullying came from Robbie Fowler, who bent over in front of him and pointed at his backside during a match, to distract him from taking a free kick.

Max Clifford is quoted as saying that he advises footballers to stay in the closet as it would be damaging to their careers and “even if accepted in England a gay player might face a new barrier if he wished to play in a country less accepting of homosexuality”. I find these to be fair views as sadly homophobia is something that unites all ethnic backgrounds.

Sepp Blatter infamously said in regards of fans planning to travel to the Qatar World Cup in 2022 that gay fans should "refrain from sexual activity" due to homosexuality being illegal in Qatar. This is a man that is the head of the football world and his comments were made very jokingly and with no regard for anyone gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. So if that is the view from the top how is it going to roll down hill?

Due to the seemingly negative response towards gay athletes is it any wonder that if there are gay or bisexual footballers or any sportsmen, that they do choose to stay in the closet and they do just take the abuse on and off the pitch, just brushing it off and accepting it as part of the game?

There are however a couple of beacons of hope in this cause and they come from Rugby Union and in football from the Swedish 4th division.

In December 2009, Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas came out as gay to the world and immediately lay to rest one of close minded peoples ‘fears’ "Just because you are gay, it doesn't mean you fancy every man who walks the planet," and linking to what Max Clifford was quoted as saying earlier as to why he couldn’t come out earlier in his career, Thomas revealed that “"It is the toughest, most macho of male sports, and with that comes an image," Thomas said "In many ways, it is barbaric, and I could never have come out without first establishing myself and earning respect as a player, Rugby was my passion, my whole life, and I wasn't prepared to risk losing everything I loved." This decision sadly proved to be correct, after all would he have won 100 caps for Wales and three for the Lions if he came out early on in his career?

Due to the notoriety that Thomas’ story gave him in January 2012 he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house, this itself lead to a fantastic stand against homophobia and it came from footballs non-league team Oxford City. Oxford City striker Luke Steele took to twitter and wrote: "I wouldn't fancy the bed next to Gareth Thomas #padlockmyarse". Almost immediately the Oxford City board released Steele from his contract due to these remarks.

The Swedish 4th division may not seem like the most obvious of places for a stand against homophobia but it is there at Utsiktens BK where the only current openly gay footballer is currently playing and that is Anton Hysén, the son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén. Having been openly gay with his family and friends for a couple of years it was actually his father Glenn Hysén who is also manager of Utsiktens BK who mentioned in passing that his son was gay and since then Anton could not quite believe the media frenzy that soon followed. While he comments that he does receive a few comments and remarks from the crowds mainly he just laughs it off and accepts it, simply by saying that he “couldn’t be more happy!”

So with the help of campaign groups ‘Kick It Out’ and the Justin Fashanu inspired ‘The Justin Campaign’ group along with people’s slowly changing views, is it time that homophobia, perhaps more so than racism, should be the biggest fight in sport and if an incident similar to that of Suarez and Evra happens but with homophobic remarks will the FA react in the same way or would it be brushed under the carpet much like it was during the 80’s and 90’s?

"Sometimes I felt so alone and depressed, I used to go to the cliffs overlooking the beach near our cottage in St Brides Major and just think about jumping off and ending it all." – Gareth Thomas talking on the effects of hiding his sexuality was having on his life.