Let’s not kid ourselves that racism has been banished from football, but the subject is at least being addressed. Eventually, the governing bodies are taking it seriously and have a scale of punishments that are being applied. Moreover, whenever there is an incidence of racism, there is an outcry from all quarters as we’ve seen with the recent Black Life’s Matter campaign. It is seen to be wrong, and it will not be accepted.
That wasn’t always the case. Society has changed. Where once signs in boarding house windows reading “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” were commonplace, where it was previously acceptable (ish) to conduct an election campaign with slogans like “If you want a coloured for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”, it is not any longer. The process was long and hard-fought, but we’re at a stage in society, as in football, where it’s very much a minority thing to judge someone inferior because of the colour of their skin.
One of the most important steps is the use of language. There are terms associated with racist language and you know what they are, so I’m not about to catalogue them here just to be controversial – which were once commonplace and are now taboo. Indeed, use of many can now be an offence in law. Campaigns in football from Kick It Out ‘Show Racism The Red Card’ – helped in this process, but even in the 1990s certain clubs were reluctant to sign up to it.
That was pretty shameful, but I’m pleased that the vast majority of clubs have adopted now as well as Football v Homophobia campaigns. Homophobia, in football as in society, is pernicious. The language associated with it is deeply ingrained and it will take a lot to shift. A supposed lack of physical toughness is often verbalised in terms of not being heterosexual. It isn’t right, but it’s been the case for so long, it will take time to make people think about it before they open their mouths.
Actions speak louder. Robbie Fowler, man of the people and natural-born comedian. His support for striking dock-workers was admirable. His goal celebration in front of Everton fans who had been taunting him over rumours of drug-use was genuinely funny. He got a bollocking for both. His arse-waggling in the direction of Graeme Le Saux in 1997 was, at the time, also generally seen as amusing. Fowler got two matches for that too.
It mattered not whether or not Le Saux was gay. It’s that he was seen as different – reading a broadsheet rather than a tabloid, having a fancy for antiques and literature – and that was being equated with homosexuality was the thing. And, of course, that being gay was in any way an issue in the first place.
Le Saux is not gay, but the abuse he got up and down the country regarding the rumours about his sexuality almost forced him to become the leading advocate of gay rights in the sport. Out footballers are few and far between, but it is unthinkable that there are many. Justin Fashanu was the first and the reaction was less than enlightened. Since then, there’s been the widely-held belief – perhaps not without foundation – that coming out would be more trouble than it was worth. That’s sad. It’s not like black players were discouraged from playing back in the day because of the abuse they’d get from supporters, although it’s a lot harder to hide the colour of your skin than it is your innermost desires.
Us outsiders don’t get the dressing room culture, we are told. I’m sure it’s very masculine and banterrific, but it’s the acme of arrogance to assume that a gay man will automatically fancy every bloke he shares a dressing room with or sees showering. I can only assume that anyone espousing the ‘backs against the walls lads’ attitude is similarly arrogant in a room with women. It’s not a nice trait and I can think of few things more off-putting to a prospective mate of any persuasion. This is the attitude that needs to alter before we get to a point where players are comfortable being themselves and, in the same way as black and other minority supporters are now more visible than they were in the 1970s and ’80s, the same attitudes become more commonplace in the stands.
Robbie Rogers, Anton Hysén and Tomas Hitzlsperger have all gone public and come out in recent times. Hitzlsperger, now retired, had a number of clubs in his career and played alongside dozens of others. The support he got from the public was great to see, which signals a shifting in social attitudes. It’s to be hoped that any player he’d been up against or alongside who may have had a problem can look back and say to themselves “Well, Tomas was alright and I never felt threatened, so what have I got to be concerned about?”
Slowly but surely, things do change. The Premier League recently launched the Rainbow Laces campaign to show support for all LGBT+ people in football and beyond which had a huge amount of awareness and visibility within the top flight stadiums.
For every player – whether still playing or retired – that comes out, it becomes easier for the next. And one day, it will cease to be an issue.