Being Gay in Sport: A secret, but for how much longer?

Sam Rhodes 10 May 2014

At some point over the next three days, in all likelihood, the NFL will see its first openly gay player drafted in the form of Michael Sam, a defensive end for the University of Missouri. Given that the league contains approximately 1,696 players, it is almost certain that many others are currently still forced to live with a secret. The hyper-masculine culture of an American Football locker room is far from the final frontier in the battle to allow people to live without keeping their sexuality a secret- but in the last few years encouraging progress has been made across sports in the UK and US.

Casey Stoney, ex-captain of the England women’s football team, said recently in an interview with BBC Sport that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Tom Daley’s video in which he announced he was in a relationship with a man persuaded her to come out. It seems only a matter of time before men’s football follows suit with its first out gay player. Recently, Thomas Hitzlsperger has come out since retiring; and Robbie Rogers since moving to the USA.

Figures within the Premier League such as the Guardian’s Secret Footballer have argued that it’s not the culture or attitudes of players that is blocking the first out premier league star, but the potential backlash from terraces and media. Rogers’ decision to take his career to the less forensically examined MLS is understandable. The warning posed by the experience of Justin Fashanu who’s coming out in 1990 was met by homophobia and ultimately tragedy still looms large- Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 after being accused of molesting a seventeen year old boy. While Rogers and Hitzlsperger are now two vital examples for the next generation of footballers, more needs to be done to ensure that footballers feel safe enough to come out. Vital education programmes and zero tolerance policies have not been forthcoming, and the placement of the 2018 and 2022 world cups in two institutionally homophobic countries is not a good sign.

One thing many of the sportspeople who have decided to speak out have in common is their referencing of role models in other sports. Without rugby referee Nigel Owens in coming out 2007, Gareth Thomas, Welsh rugby international, may not have ever spoken out about his sexuality. Stephen Davies, the England and Surrey wicketkeeper, said when he came out that the example of Thomas gave him the strength to follow suit. An optimistic view of the situation in England suggests that we are at something of a turning point. If the current trend continues then in the very near future no sportsperson will have to keep their sexuality a secret.

But the question of whether the NFL is truly ready for an openly gay player does unfortunately remain. Coming in the wake of a season in which a bullying scandal at the Miami Dolphins implicated coaches at the highest level in a campaign to ‘toughen up’ rookies with racism and physical abuse, the acceptance of Sam in whichever locker room he ends up in seems far from certain. Even more worryingly, the ex-Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe alleges that he was replaced by the organisation due to his outspoken views in support of same-sex marriage. Kluwe wrote in an open letter that he had repeatedly opposed homophobic statements of his coach in public and in private, and that this was directly cited during the meeting in which he was fired. Although both of these situations are still under investigation, if Michael Sam is drafted, his career will be one that is scrutinised more than perhaps any player of his generation. Progress is certainly being made, but we still have a long way to go.