The Last Word: Self-interest leaves rainbow warriors thin on the ground

Campaign to support gay players has become a missed opportunity to tackle sport's last taboo

Michael Calvin
Saturday 21 September 2013 23:17
Tongue tied: Hull City’s David Meyler ties his rainbow laces yesterday; only one Premier League club has made a conscious decision to support the cause
Tongue tied: Hull City’s David Meyler ties his rainbow laces yesterday; only one Premier League club has made a conscious decision to support the cause

Football has a duty of care to the gay player who is so scared of the consequences of his sexuality that he cannot be himself. One day, when it is not so consumed by corporate vanity, suspicion and self-regard, it might get around to fulfilling it.

The piecemeal response to the rainbow-laces campaign, designed to accelerate change and confront attitudes in the fight against homophobia, hints at the hypocrisy and hesitancy which betrays those fearful of coming out.

The initiative is unnecessarily tainted by its association with an infamously opportunistic betting company. But a chance to make a collective statement has been squandered. The politics of protest ensure that activists in related fields, such as anti-racism, have been alienated by the audacity of Stonewall, the gay-rights group.

The Premier League and its clubs have paid lip service to the issue, but only Everton have made a conscious decision to support the cause. Everyone in an overtly masculine environment is missing the point by dwelling on self-interest.

Pause for a moment, and consider what the gay professional footballer is going through. He derives some comfort from the visibility of the campaign, but feels claustrophobic. He continues to be confined by the culture of his sport and intimidated by the knowledge that, to be true to himself, he must make a terrifying leap of faith.

He is concerned about the strength of his support network, and the burden he will place on his nearest and dearest. Before anything becomes public he must prepare his family. He may be married. His parents are unlikely to have hidden their pride at his achievements.

It does get slightly easier every time the secret is shared. But some friends will resent the realisation they have been lied to. It takes time to repair fractured trust.

Liberation from a double life is difficult, but fulfilling. Depression is a threat. The fear of rejection by teammates feels very real. The dressing room has a distinctive code, sacred professional protocols. The gay player craves acceptance from team- mates, but is worried he has contravened the conventions of his trade.

Ultimately, however, he discovers he is not defined by his sexual orientation. There is a risk of initial abuse from social inadequates who seek solace in crowds. It is likely to be horrible, deeply wounding. But it will not last long, because the vast majority of decent supporters will operate a self-policing policy. Respect will be forthcoming.

Do not take my word for it. The preceding insight was supplied by Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British Lions captain who became the first professional athlete in a team sport to come out in December 2009.

I have come to know him as a man of moral courage and natural warmth. He has been enriched by the process of self-discovery, though it has been painful. His charitable foundation works in schools to combat all forms of bullying. He remains a complex character and still feels uncomfortable at being regarded as a pioneer, but is a source of inspiration and advice to those steeling themselves to acknowledge their sexuality. They include footballers who have confided the complexity of their situation.

Despite the dissipation of its message, Thomas believes the rainbow-laces campaign has the potential to be hugely beneficial. Footballers, followed by millions, are in the perfect position to promote change. The sight of players signalling solidarity invites optimism that sport's last taboo is on its last legs. Football is a people business. It highlights the best and worst in human nature. Thomas has seen each, but gains strength from the first thing he learned when he told his team-mates the truth: you are never alone.

Suarez is back but will not change

Tribal conventions will be observed, and Luis Suarez will be welcomed back as a Liverpool player with the fevered sentimentality reserved for prodigal sons.

It is somehow appropriate that his proposed comeback is at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The apathy usually generated by the early rounds of the League Cup doesn't suit his inflammatory character.

Already Brendan Rodgers is talking up the seamless reintegration of a player whose only activity since he bit Branislav Ivanovic in April has been at international level with Uruguay.

Victor Moses has been on loan at Anfield for a nano-second, and is hailing Suarez as "a top lad". We can expect more such tributes to the talismanic striker before his return.

Yet, before collective amnesia assumes epidemic proportions, a word of warning: Suarez will not change. It is in his nature to place everything in the context of his best interests.

He is still the same man who repaid the faith and unfeasible loyalty of his supporters by aggressively agitating for a move to Real Madrid or, at a pinch, Arsenal.

If he is still at Liverpool this time next year, we are truly living in an age of miracles and wonders.

Force for good

Peter Kay turned his flaws, as an alcoholic and drug addict, into a force for good. His foundation of the Sporting Chance clinic with Tony Adams saved lives. His premature death robs football of one of the few whose first instinct is to give rather than receive.

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