"In football it's obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It's crazy and sad." They were the words of Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds United player, who decided that once he became openly gay it would be impossible for him to continue in English football. He now plays Major League Football for LA Galaxy, seemingly a more pleasant place for a gay footballer than the home of football.
The saddest thing about the whole affair was that there was barely a single commentator who disagreed with Rogers' assessment that an openly gay footballer would be made to feel like an outcast in English football. Gay footballers have been advised by publicists not to 'come out' as it would damage their careers. British football needs to move beyond token gestures and really confront the homophobia that is putting the game out of step with British society.
Football should show the same determination to root out homophobia that it showed to root out racism over the past few decades. Admittedly, football still has a way to go on the racism issue, but we’ve made considerable progress compared to where football was in the 1970s and 1980s and compared to pretty much every other European country. I can’t remember the last time I heard a racist comment at a football match, whereas they were still relatively commonplace when I first started going to matches in the late 1980s.
On the flip side, football hasn’t made anything like the same level of progress in rooting out homophobia and it really needs to start taking the problem seriously. I’ve heard the chant at Sunderland away matches about the Gallowgate End at St James’s Park being "full of poofs, shits and wankers." Other teams use the same chant about their rivals. Throwaway homophobic words remain commonplace at football grounds around the country – I’ve heard words like "poof", "faggot" and "queer" being used on the terraces so many times in the past few years. It’s only a few years since Spurs fans sang a grotesquely offensive chant based on scurrilous rumours about Sol Campbell.
Football clubs should stop paying lip service to the issue and start taking it seriously. In February, the FA launched a "toolkit" about homophobia in football, but a month later only 29 of the 92 professional clubs had signed up to the football vs. homophobia campaign and even some of those did so half heartedly.
It’s pretty clear that racist abuse is increasingly dealt with properly by clubs, with supporters being thrown out and banned for racist abuse. They need to start learning from that and get tough on homophobic chanting and homophobic abuse, using real sanctions to show that they’re treating the issue with the gravity it deserves. The football ground shouldn’t be one of the only places in modern Britain where homophobia is seen as acceptable.
There’s obviously a shortage of gay role models in modern football and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that is going to end soon. But that shouldn’t stop top professionals and household names speaking out against homophobia and making clear that they’d be very happy to have a gay teammate. Kick Racism Out Of Football was effective because top footballers were willing to support the campaign and, in many cases be very vocal about their support. They should be prepared to show the same level of support to a campaign against homophobia in sport. And that means more than occasional players appearing shirtless in a gay lifestyle magazine – they should be making the case in the Sun, on Soccer Saturday and Match of the Day.
This weekend, Stonewall, Paddy Power and Joey Barton are encouraging footballers to wear rainbow laces in their boots to signal their determination to eliminate homophobia. It’s a good move and I hope that my beloved Sunderland show their support. But it says a lot that the campaign comes from gay rights campaigners, an Irish bookmaker and a footballer playing in France on loan from QPR, rather than the FA, the Premiership clubs and top Premiership footballers. And it will take more than one weekend of footballers wearing rainbow laces to really tackle the problem.
The people at the top of English football and the Premiership in particular (one of our great national successes) have to show that they’re taking the issue of homophobia in football very seriously indeed. Homophobic language or behaviour should be no more acceptable on the terraces, or on the pitch, than it is anywhere else in society, and clubs and football authorities have to emphasise that through actions as well as words. Hopefully that will mean that the next time a footballer such as Robbie Rogers decides to 'come out' he will feel comfortable continuing to play in English football.