The toughest match: coming out

Homosexuality in sport has found itself in the media spotlight for a fair amount of the past year. In February last year former Leeds United footballer Robbie Rogers announced not only his retirement from the game but that he was gay too. He was the first professional footballer in Britain to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990. In May 2013, the American magazine Sports Illustrated ran a cover story where the NBA’s Jason Collins announced he was gay. Collins credited Robbie Rogers’ bravery in coming out to give him the courage to announce his sexual orientation. Eight months later at the beginning of February; American Football’s defensive end Michael Sam told the world that he was gay. If drafted he could become the first active gay player in NFL history. Note the word ‘if’. Because despite being voted the best one of the best defensive players at college level, Sam’s decision to publically admit he is gay could well hinder his chances in being drafted into the NFL. 

Michael Sam coming out has provoked mixed responses in the USA. While students and staff at the University of Missouri who he played for last season showed unprecedented support it was NFL officials who cast doubt over Sam’s future who claimed that teams would not pick an openly gay player as they fear the media circus that would follow would hinder them. Officials also highlighted how Sam’s sexuality would not be welcome in the dressing room.

“at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room” [1]

It’s worth noting that all the officials who spoke to the media chose to remain anonymous. To me that says a lot about them rather than anything to do with Michael Sam.

For Jason Collins, he is experiencing life as an openly gay basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets. It seems like a huge step forward but it’s worth remembering that Collins’ deal with the Nets is only for 10 days (although a second 10 day deal looks likely). Admittedly Collin is nearing the end of his career so from a purely tactical view the Nets may not want to risk it all on a player who may not deliver. But Collins isn’t a bad player so this is probably more of a case of the Nets cautiously testing out the water. So far it’s been a largely positive response. Collins’ 98 jersey is a top-seller on the NBA’s online store and a variety of basketball players have actively supported him. Perhaps this is the beginning of a changing set of values and ideals – in the NBA at least.

Today, Robbie Rogers is preparing for his first full season at LA Galaxy after coming out of retirement in May last year. He gave reasoning to why he wanted to get back into football.

“I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate” [2]

I admire the burden Rogers is taking on but equally it’s disheartening to know that Rogers’ fear was no doubt caused by the atmosphere we have in football even today.

The first football match I ever went to was to see my beloved Peterborough United play Hartlepool United. An awful lot in football has changed since then. Transfer records have been broken, clubs have vanished from existence and even Arsenal have managed to win something. Yet one thing that has always remained is the distinctly intimidating atmosphere towards homosexuality. It’s not at every club and it’s certainly not every fan but from my experience as a supporter, there’s no denying it exists. What doesn’t help is the casual acceptance of it. So many supporters, including myself, will quickly turn a blind eye when we hear derogatory remarks being thrown about like its second nature. It’s not such an uncommon occurrence that we gasp in horror. Maybe if we took away the pitch and the four stands surrounding it me and those supporters would have a very different reaction to what we hear but until supporters do more to stamp it out, little will change. In that respect I can see why Robbie Rogers shied away from playing English football as an openly gay player. He’d have been completely isolated and suddenly those supporters don’t quite feel like supporters anymore.

As a straight man I don’t fully understand homosexuality. I definitely can’t comprehend what it must be like for an athlete, or anyone for that matter, to disguise who they truly are just so they can compete in something they love. But equally I’m sure there are many people out there who can’t understand why I chose to wake up at 4am just to watch Andy Murray get knocked out of the semi-finals of the Mexican Open.  It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I hope though that the burden these men, along with many, many others, are carrying will eventually mean that future athletes don’t have to carry the same. I think Dale Hansen, a sports anchor in Texas, sums up my feelings perfectly in this video.



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