Saturday 16 February 2013

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Robbie Rogers and Football's Fight Against Homophobia

Yesterday the world of football would like to believe it witnessed a first. Indeed it is a first in the eyes of many, many who will not have been old enough to remember, or have chosen to forget what came before.

Yesterday, Robbie Rogers, a 25 year old footballer from America, who made four appearances for Leeds United and six for Stevenage, announced he was gay on his personal blog. And while many will believe he is in fact the first professional footballer to do so, this is not the case.  Justin Fashanu, an English footballer who played for many clubs including Manchester City and West Ham United, was in fact the first prominent footballer to announce he was gay to the press and the public.

His peers were disgusted. His own brother disowned him.

He committed suicide by hanging himself in a lock-up in Shoreditch in May 1998.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Thankfully, society and football seem to have moved on from these shameful times, when it was considered that only men can play football and 'poofs' were not welcome on the pitch. But it is still worth noting that until Rogers decided to make public his sexuality yesterday morning, since Fashanu, no figure in male football had ever come out as gay. Other sports have had their watershed moment in the fight against homophobia; ex-Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 and in 2011, England cricketer Steven Davies announced he was gay. But football has had to wait until now to claim that its participants can come out without fear.

Yet as tempting as it may be to jump on the bandwagon and announce that football can finally  claim to be on the right path to inclusivity (one can almost hear Sepp Blatter salivating over the prospect of a press conference stating football has vanquished its last great social taboo), it must be noted that Rogers has retired from football, at least for the present time. Whilst he posted on his blog that it was 'time to discover myself away from football', nobody would begrudge his decision if he were to stay away from the game permanently. Yes, it is a fantastic and important moment in the history of football, but can anyone say with any strong conviction that the reason Rogers has quit the game has nothing to do with fearing the abuse and heckling he would endure?

The fact is that until gay footballers feel safe enough to reconcile playing football with their personal life and feelings, then the sport cannot claim to be the 'beautiful game'. Nor can it be said that everybody can speak within its 'universal language'. Football should be a game where everybody should feel comfortable with who they are; whether you are black or white, woman or man, adult or child, gay or straight. And if you cannot speak its language without fear of being made to feel like you are not wanted, then this is not a sport: it is a disgrace.

Robbie Rogers deserves the congratulations he is receiving for being brave enough to come out, especially from within a sport that has a dire history in its treatment of gay participants. But we must not think that the fight against homophobia is over within football. You might argue that until today, it had never really begun.

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