Looking for an end to homophobia in sport

Thomas Wills - Sports Reporter 30 October 2009

Here’s a little challenge. Name an openly gay sports professional. It’s not too tough…Martina Navratilova comes immediately to my mind. Older readers might cite Billy Jean King and any Americans in the house would no doubt think of Sheryl Swoopes, the first lady of basketball, or Greg Louganis, the diver with two Olympic gold medals to his name. Anyone closely watching the news in the last week may well name Donal Og Cusak, the Irish hurler who came out in his recent autobiography.

That’s a small, high profile handful and a convenient introduction to my theme. Next question: now name, let’s say, a gay Premier League footballer. Or a test cricketer. A gay Olympian at Beijing last year? I can’t, and without a crafty minute on Google, I bet you can’t either.

So why so few? We’ll take as our basis what seems to be the most widely spread estimate, that about 5% of the population are homosexual. That should translate into one or two gay people in every football squad, every tennis tournament and every golf major. The fact that it doesn’t is worth a measure of analysis.

Perhaps they’re just keeping quiet. Of the athletes mentioned above, not one was openly gay at the beginning of their careers, and only Navratilova made her sexuality known at the height of her fame. Clearly, it’s often far easier to keep quiet, maintain a façade of heterosexuality, and not give the tabloids the sensationalist copy they crave. The cautionary tale of Justin Fashanu is relevant herein: a talented footballer throughout the ‘80‘s, he gave an interview to The Sun in 1990 imaginatively titled “£1 million Football Star: I am Gay”. Widely derided, his career thereafter went dramatically downhill, moving between clubs eight times in seven years before committing suicide in troubled circumstances. Whilst much mystery surrounded his tragic ending, the furore that followed the interview is widely recognised as kicking off his downhill spiral.

The alternative reading to all this, and one that I think has slightly more currency, is that perhaps there really aren’t very many gay people out on the field of play. Two big reasons prop this point up. As already mentioned, there’s a serious paucity of gay role models in sport, and maybe there’s too little example for gay people reluctant to take up sport at a high level. It takes rare courage to blaze a barely-used trail.

Secondly, sports as a general rule tend to foster a culture that is neither open-minded towards homosexuals nor appealing to them. Perhaps I’m going a little far with the stereotyping here, but there’s certainly a masochistic, testosterone-fuelled and overtly heterosexual element to many sports, boxing and rugby being the most obvious examples. On a personal note, were I gay, I would have been bloody terrified had my team ‘mates’ at the town football club got wind of it. For me, it’s easy to see how a homosexual would choose to eschew sport.

It’s not all gloom though. The natural progression of sport’s big and successful offensive on racism is that it will next turn its hefty advertising machine upon homophobia. While it won’t be an easy road, I’d be surprised if the next twenty years doesn’t throw up a fair few more gay athletes as household names.

Thomas Wills – Sports Reporter