The decision by Thomas Hitzlsperger, the recently retired German footballer, to come out as gay is personally brave but only half a step forward for football. Hitzlsperger’s highly impressive public comments – delivered with a mastery of the English language that instantly marked him out as German – suggest he did not come out during his playing career because at first he considered himself straight, and was then too busy with the day-to-day challenges of professional life. But the feeling endures that the culture of professional football, in England and elsewhere, makes gay players feel that they must keep their sexuality secret.
More than 10,000 players have appeared in the Premier League since it was founded in 1992 and yet none has felt able to be openly gay. Homophobia is commonplace in football. In 1999, in a demeaning on-field taunt, the player Robbie Fowler infamously gestured that Graeme Le Saux was gay. Le Saux isn’t gay but he did admit to reading the Guardian, which presumably was evidence enough for Fowler. Justin Fashanu, the first British footballer to come out – albeit after he had semi-retired – killed himself at the age of 37.
Hitzlsperger must surely have weighed up whether he was prepared to tolerate the reaction from both the dressing room and, especially, the terraces. The most depressing aspect of modern football is the hatred poured at players from the stands – often, bizarrely, from home “fans”. Footballers live with weekly exposure to grotesque personal abuse in which any point of difference is seized upon and ridiculed.
But other sports should hold back from anti-football smugness. During my cricket career, I witnessed the same kind of casual homophobia that dissuades elite footballers from coming out. Unapologetic articulateness and intelligence, a willingness to show emotional vulnerability, enjoyment of the arts, a gift for non-sexual intimacy: all were routinely labelled “gay”.
Cricket had to wait until 2011 for its first openly gay professional, Steve Davies, although it is a statistical certainty that I’d played with and against gay cricketers. The subject was taboo inside the game. That was reinforced by the stag-trip-style conversations that dominated dressing-room discussion of sex. My instinct tells me that attitudes became more liberal over the span of my career (1996-2008). But my memory may be skewed: with age and seniority, it became easier for me to drop out of conversations that I found distasteful.
Sport’s problems with sexuality hint at wider flaws. They get to the core of what many people don’t like about it: a pack mentality that suppresses individual differences; bullying thinly justified as banter; a willingness to let “winners” get away with prejudices; the assumption that toughness is bound up with suppressing humanity rather than embracing it. One widely held view of sport holds that it promotes a limited, self-serving and prescriptive version of success, and actively discriminates against people who don’t fit the mould.
A few years ago, I appeared in a Radio 3 debate called “Sport v the Arts”. It was a slightly silly premise, of course. But I did learn one uncomfortable truth that day. The panellists speaking against sport felt personally affronted and excluded by its aggressive and narrowly male tone. I argued that this noisy constituency was far from reflective of the whole of sport. But perhaps I would feel very differently if I hadn’t belonged to the sporting community from a very early age.
The case against sport, in fact, comes easily enough to me, too. I quickly weary of macho posturing, dislike voyeuristic hero worship and despise tribal hatreds. The case for sport is actually far subtler and harder to pin down. I am not convinced that sport builds character, though clearly some lives are rescued by the discipline and structure that it provides. Much more often, however, it merely builds the character of people who were already inclined towards self- improvement. Put differently, sport is often the accidental vehicle for personal growth: “character-building” opportunities could have come through music, or theatre, or any other form of communal activity.
Yet, with often flickering but never extinguished belief, I continue to think that sport does more good than harm. As a form of joyous collective memory and experience, it is a central thread of human identity. Beneath the adversarial veneer, sport is one of the ties that bind us together.
I would go further. Sport can actively advance society as well as just enhance and reflect it. Though there are still depressing instances of racial prejudice in sport, racism is generally in retreat. Right up to the 1980s, football indulged the absurd idea that black players didn’t have the “character” to be good defenders. Eventually, however, even the racist’s last stand – that his team’s black players were somehow different from the opposition’s black players – became overwhelmed by the multiracial brilliance out on the pitch.
Playing sport has the power to overcome prejudices even more strongly than watching it. Team-mates win and lose together and suffer and celebrate together. This richness of experience is shared by people who have little in common beyond belonging to a shared enterprise. Playing team sport teaches us that we can be very different on the surface and yet so alike in essentials. And when it comes to breaking down prejudice, a splash of shared experience makes more impact than hours of liberal theorising.
That’s why sport, eventually, has the power to modernise attitudes towards sexuality rather than repress them.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)