The Independent's survey of professional footballers in England reveals today that a majority of players believe their industry is homophobic, but the only openly gay man on the Football Association's Council says that the major hurdle for any player in coming out is concern over how that player's value might be damaged.
"The main difficulty at the moment is that players are assets," said Peter Clayton, who is the chief executive of the Middlesex FA and a long-serving FA councillor. "They have a market value, which clubs might feel could be affected. I think there's a concern too about the wider price, in terms of negative effects [on business]. This is my personal view, but there are clubs who think it's in their interests to counsel players not to come out."
There are no openly gay professional footballers in Britain, nor have there been since Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and committed suicide in 1998. It is statistically improbable that there are no gay footballers among England's 2,500 current professionals. Indeed, it is privately acknowledged within the FA and other organisations that have worked to eradicate homophobia, that there are numerous gay footballers in England. In some cases they have been advised (and assisted) by their clubs to find girlfriends to maintain an image.
The Independent's survey found that 57 per cent of players think football is homophobic, but this figure jumps among those who have gay friends (which is one in five of all players). In that group, who may arguably be more sensitive to homophobia, 64.4 per cent of players think football is homophobic, rising to 77 per cent in League One.
Clayton, 54, was a founder member of Stonewall FC, Britain's first gay football club. He also worked as a referee and as Middlesex FA's secretary before becoming the chief executive. "I've personally never had any difficulties with prejudice, either at Stonewall, as a referee, as secretary or as an FA Council member, not to my face at least," he said.
He agrees that a gay professional might face a harder time, not just from clubs concerned about image but also "because of the potential for abuse, and crowd reaction".
One respondent to the survey, a 29-year-old League Two player, echoed that view by saying: "As a footballer, it would be difficult to come out." Another respondent was seemingly less sensitive to the issues. He ticked and underlined the "No" box next to the question: 'Do you have any friends who are gay?' He also added: "I've never been in any teams with any gays."
Asked if he could envisage a player coming out in the next few years, Clayton said: "I would certainly hope so, but not until a player does come out will we know what the reaction would be."
One of the most prominent figures in world sport to come out to date was the Australian rugby league star, Ian Roberts, in 1995. He was 30 at the time, and still a world-class front-rower, for Manly. He was already an acknowledged hard man but his coming out only emphasised his bravery in one of sport's toughest, most macho environments. His reputation was enhanced within Australia and around the world.
Clayton believes that a footballing superstar would face few or no problems coming out, "and I mean someone who's already the subject of absolute adulation, like David Beckham".
If any respected international player came out, probably near the end of his career and with less risk, Clayton would not expect too much, if any, negativity. "That's water to be tested," he said. "But the FA are supportive. The PFA are supportive. Times have moved on since Justin Fashanu came out. There are gay football clubs up and down the country, not just Stonewall."
While football still has much progress to make on combating homophobia, the English game has made more headway in the fight against racism. The survey's findings back that up, with 63 per cent of all players saying they have never experienced racism within the game in England. One per cent did not answer that question but the 36 per cent who said they had experienced racism - usually from crowds - shows that there is no room for complacency. As Gillingham's goalkeeper, Jason Brown, testifies elsewhere in The Independent today, some players still suffer at the hands of racist fans, as he has done this season.
A minority of players, 25.5 per cent across all divisions, feel that black players and coaches are under-represented in the English game.
The players were not specifically asked to distinguish the two groups - players and coaches - but many of those who said 'Yes' specified that black coaches, rather than black players, are under-represented.
The questions we asked
Is football a homophobic industry?
Premier League 55%/41%/4%
League One 62%/36%/2%
League Two 54%/43%/3%
All players 57%/40%/3%
Do you have any friends who are gay?
Premier League 23.5%/74%/2.5%
League One 23%/76%/1%
League Two 17%/82%/1%
All players 20%/78%/2%
Is football a homophobic industry? (of those with gay friends)
Premier League 60%/35%/5%
League One 77%/23%/0
League Two 53%/47%/0
All players 64.4%/34.2%/1.4%
What professional footballers think of the game they play
What, if anything, do you think is harming the game?
League One 50%/7.5%/12%/6.5%/5%/19%
League Two 46%/8%/4%/7%/9%/26%
All players 43%/11%/11%/7%/7.5%/20.5%
Key to reasons: Ticket Expensive tickets; TV too much football on TV; 3pm not enough Saturday 3.0 kick-offs; Comb combination of two or more of Tick, TV and 3pm.
* Other reasons stated include: "boring games", "too few goals", "poor refereeing", "too many foreigners", "kiss and tell stories", "hooligans", "computer games", "Chelsea", "not allowing fans to pay on the gate", "poor facilities in lower divisions", "Premiership wages", "defensive-minded tactics", "dominance by rich élite", "inflexible pricing".
Which tactical system do you prefer?
League One 76%/5%/2%/0%/3.5%/13.5%
League Two 78.5%/2.5%/8%/0%/1%/10%
All players 74%/5.5%/4.5%/1%/2.5%/12.5%
* Included 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-3 and "dependent on players".
Would you support a two-week winter break in January in future seasons, as long as it did not interfere with the Christmas/New Year programmes?
League One 72%/27%/1%
League Two 62%/38%/0%
All players 72.5%/27.2%/0.3%
At the start of the season, which best reflected the genuine competition for the title in your club's division: how many teams could win?
League One 1%/7.5%/58.5%/33%
League Two 0%/8%/47%/45%
All players 5%/25%/43%/27%
Does your manager encourage input from players on team matters?
League One 74%/25%/1%
League Two 68%/31%/1%
All players 67%/31%/2%Reuse content