Footballers coming out: it’s not about them

pic by Michael Coghlan

There was a flurry of excited speculation in the US last week when Brendan Ayanbadejo said four NFL players were on the verge of coming out.

It later turned out to be a good deal more complex than that. But the fact remains that US team pro sports are much closer to the tipping point that the AFL has been teetering on (and desperately trying not to fall over) for some considerable time now.

US sports have got the message: it’s not about them, it’s about us. And if a whole slew of gay sportsmen come out at once, no-one has to be poster boy and no-one has to carry the burden of attention single handed.

Clearly, American footballers are a whole lot smarter than their Australian counterparts. Who knew?

Already the debate is moving on to how the game will be changed by this, especially coaching practices, which have historically been built on a toxic blend of homo-eroticism and homophobia.

Yes, there are non-athletes and athletes who conflate masculinity with athletics, but I think the narrative is changing and athletes, in private, are having important conversations about redefining masculinity and manhood. And, yes, they may have a ways to go, but so does the rest of society.

I don’t believe athletes, in this day and age, are given enough credit. They understand the world around them and are doing more to reach across the aisle to work with people who may identity differently.

Not all coaches are a bunch of knuckle-dragging homophobes, but I strongly suspect there are more of them now, proportionally speaking, in British and Australian male team sports than there are in the US. I wrote about that particular psychological manipulation back in 2004.

These young men sleep, eat, shower and train together, frequently naked or near-naked, and in close physical contact. Their physical and emotional dependence on each other is promoted and encouraged: you do it for your mates. By an act of misdirection, it is called “male bonding”. But its real name is love.

Small wonder, then, that a powerfully homosexual atmosphere – though God forbid we should call it by its true name – is the result.

But sports trainers simultaneously maintain a strenuously anti-gay culture. The desired result is thus achieved: a high level of confusion, frustration and consequent aggression – which is then available to be channelled against opponents. This is why sports teams so often taunt their opponents with homophobic epithets, calling them “poofters”, “girls”, etc.

The time is long overdue to move on from this ridiculous notion that football and homophobia are natural bedfellows. And that it’s all nothing worse than playful ‘banter’.  Take this from Brighton, one of the gayest cities in the UK:

A joint-statement from the Brighton & Hove Supporters Club and Gay Football Supporters Network says: “It wouldn’t be described as banter if the taunts and chants were about skin colour and something would have been done by now to stop it.

“Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club has spent over 15 years trying to get the authorities to take this regular abuse of one club’s fans seriously.

“We would like our fans to be able to go to games with kids or their grandparents and not hear much of the stuff we are subjected to – it’s our basic human right.

“Our campaigning with the help of the Football Supporters’ Federation has led to ‘homophobic abuse’ being included in the list of unacceptable behaviour in ground regulations, yet many clubs, their stewards and their fans do not seem to know what constitutes ‘homophobic abuse’.”

It’s time sportsmen and in particular sports administrators got their heads out of the sand. Anyone who has played male team sports knows that playful situational homo-eroticism is the real glue that holds teams together. American team games may at last be ready to admit it. Time we were too.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)