Gay Cricket Star Comes Out; Silence Unbroken by Soccer Pros
British newspaper The Daily Telegraph headlined the news on Feb. 27 that cricket star Steven Davies, 24, has come out as gay, making him the first professional cricket player to come out before retirement.
In 2009, similar headlines greeted the emergence of rugby hero Gareth Thomas from the closet. But Britain’s professional soccer players remain tight-lipped when it comes to gays in their ranks.
That’s a pity, Associate Press sports columnist John Leicester reckoned in a March 1 article. Leicester also opined that it should not be the case that a gay athlete coming out is still sensational news.
"Two decades into the 21st century, the day when a top athlete’s sexuality is not news at all still seems so distant. It cannot come fast enough," wrote Leicester. "It reflects poorly on professional sports that the number of openly gay athletes can generally be counted on the fingers of one hand," the columnist added.
Citing Gareth Thomas, Leicester noted, "The Welshman’s coming out in 2009 made him such a trailblazer that actor Mickey Rourke is talking about making a movie of his life.
"In cricket, Davies is England’s first professional player to publicly announce he is gay. The wicketkeeper says he was inspired him by Thomas’ example, who ’showed me it can be done,’ " the columnist continued. "Davies says ’there was no one to look up to’ before Thomas."
But the silence from the ranks of gay soccer pros remains unbroken, Leicester wrote, adding that the silence "grows more deafening with each athlete from another sport who speaks up."
Leicester noted that the presence of gay soccer players across Europe’s teams is "[s]tatistically, logically, naturally" inevitable. "But they, their friends and families are keeping that secret for whatever reason."
As reported in a Dec. 21, 2009, EDGE article, Thomas may have come out as gay, but that doesn’t mean the sporting culture in Britain is ready to embrace gay athletes.
That’s the opinion of publicist Max Clifford, who said that U.K. sports has plenty of homosexuals on the field, but that fans are still not ready to accept that pro athletes can also be gay. Clifford says that he’s told two gay athletes to stay in the closet because coming out would be harmful to their careers.
Soccer in particular "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia," Clifford told U.K. publication the Daily Star, a Dec. 21, 2009 article in that paper. "It’s a very sad state of affairs," Clifford added. "But it’s a fact that homophobia in football is as strong now as it was 10 years ago." Added the publicist, "If you’d asked me in 2000 whether I thought we’d have a famous, openly gay [soccer player] by 2010 I would have said yes."
"It would take a very courageous Premier League [soccer player] to come out because fans are so vociferous," opined Homophobia in Football’s Peter Clayton, the Daily Star article reported, even though, Clayton added, "Some are out to their clubs and team-mates and nobody gives a jot."
Leicester went on to recall that homophobic sports fans taunted Thomas with anti-gay chants a year ago. But the risk of name-calling or pigeonholing might be worth it, Leicester posited, if there was a chance for a gay soccer star to break one of the last remaining taboos regarding gays in sports.
"Perhaps, like international rugby referee Nigel Owens or two-time Grand Slam tournament winner Amelie Mauresmo, they would prove that being openly gay is not a career-killer," Leicester wrote. "Whatever the reason, soccer leaders should feel ashamed that gay players haven’t been made to feel comfortable enough to speak freely."
Leicester recollected the bad joke made by FIFA head Sepp Blatter late last year, when Blatter was talking about gay soccer fans traveling to anti-gay nation Qatar, where the World Cup will be hosted in 2022. Blatter tossed off a quip about gay soccer fans abstaining from sex while in that country. The remark unleashed a firestorm of criticism and the observation that big sports events draw prostitutes to host cities to service the sexual appetites of heterosexual fans--a point no one thought to address when contemplating Qatar’s stance on sexual matters.
Gay ’Role Models’ Needed in Soccer Culture
Leicester noted that Blatter later issued an apology for his remark, but the columnist went on to assert, "it is no laughing matter that gay soccer players find it even harder to come out than gay politicians."
Added the columnist, "It is not funny that a respected figure like Marcello Lippi, Italy’s World Cup-winning coach, felt it was acceptable to say in 2009 that gay soccer players should stay in the closet, that a gay soccer couple would create scandal in Italy and that he has never come across a gay player in four decades in the sport."
Leicester quoted Gary Nunn, a spokesperson for the British GLBT equality group Stonewall. "We definitely need more role models in football," Nunn said. "We’re OK with our gay cricketers and gay rugby players, but with football, it’s quite concerning." Added Nunn, "We want to get to the stage where this doesn’t become news," says Nunn, "where it becomes totally matter of fact."
Others also see the state of the sport as persistently homophobic. In a Dec. 14, 2010 article in British newspaper the Guardian, sports writer Richard Williams lamented how little progress had been made in the soccer world when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating gay players and fans.
"Somewhere in one of the bigger European leagues is a gay footballer," wrote Williams, "a wonderfully gifted player, popular with his club’s supporters, an international who has appeared in World Cups and is at an age when the best years of his career almost certainly still lie ahead of him. But, of course, his sexuality remains a secret to the world at large."
Williams decried the locker room’s "age old... culture of empty machismo" and homophobia among fans, and went on to add, "The player concerned--and you will have to take it from me that he really does exist--has it in his power to change all this. His prominence means that were he to speak publicly about his sexuality, notice would be taken around the world. And we would all, I believe, be surprised by the results."
Williams also cited the example of Gareth Thomas. "As far as one can see, his decision has brought him nothing but acceptance and admiration from the outside world," wrote Williams.
But by contrast, Williams also wrote of Justin Fashanu, a soccer player who came out in 1990, only to be disowned by his brother, derided by fellow athletes, and mocked by fans. "The sad chaos of Fashanu’s life, which ended by his own hand in 1998 at the age of 37, can be gauged by the list of clubs attached to his name," wrote Williams. "There were 22 in 19 years as his career spiraled out of control. Now there is an organization called the Justin Campaign, which campaigns against the game’s institutionalized homophobia."
Added Williams, "The special prominence of football in global culture gives it an unusual degree of influence. Currently it remains one of the last significant bastions of prejudice against gays, and were the footballer I mentioned earlier to decide to declare himself, no doubt he would need quite as much courage as Gareth Thomas showed."
However, there are signs that the long silence from soccer’s gay players may one day be broken, such as encouragement from straight players like Bayern Munich star Mario Gomez, 25, who said last year that coming out of the closet would make for better athletes on the field. "They would play as if they had been liberated," Gomez opined. "Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic."
British newspaper The Guardian noted in an Oct. 11, 2010, article that the young star’s exhortation defied the received wisdom; the German Football Federation has said that gay players who own up could see their professional lives come to an abrupt end.
That was the fate of Marcus Urban, a German player who came out to his teammates in 1997 and promptly lost his status as a professional athlete. Urban did not publicly disclose the reason for his career’s end until ten years later.
But times have changed, and Gomez argued that being gay is no longer a big deal, pointing to openly gay leading political figures Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s vice chancellor, and Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin. "[P]rofessional footballers should own up to their preference," Gomez said.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.