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13 February 2019

As the world around it changes, football still has a problem with toxic masculinity

The game is suspended in a hormonal state similar to that of a fifteen year old boy.

By Kelly Welles

During yesterday’s test match between England and the West Indies, England cricket captain Joe Root was filmed responding to a sledge from bowler Shannon Gabriel. Root’s response: “Don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” earned him acclaim. The statement should perhaps see him become a contender for Sports Personality of the Year in December, given that he actually has a personality.

People who don’t follow sport may find this surge of applause for a man stating the obvious a little peculiar. But when it comes to progressive politics, sport often lags behind. Netball is for girls; women can’t drive Formula 1 cars; and female players still get paid only a fraction of what “the lads” earn.

It’s a culture that was reflected in West Indies coach Richard Pybus’ description of Shannon Gabriel as “a proper old-school fast bowler,” which, along with statements about someone having “traditional views” or being a “good bloke,” belongs to a culture of toxic masculinity and banter that is only ever two pints away from a racist, misogynist or homophobic slur. 

So it’s wonderful to see the England test captain respond instinctively to a remark he obviously finds tedious and offensive, in an off-the-cuff fashion that can’t be dismissed as mere virtue signalling. But is Root’s inclusive attitude reflected in broader sport culture – and in football, in particular?  Should those of us who adore the game while also condemning hate crime look forward to a new dawn where players call out homophobia across the board?

Probably not. Apart from the fact that footballers, managers and even medical assistants are resistant to leaking sensitive information to the press, by speaking out they run the risk of subverting a football narrative that feels vaguely threatened by the existence of male homosexuality.

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Let’s say England captain Harry Kane was caught on camera speaking Joe Root’s words to an opponent during a Premier League game. Several things would happen. Football Twitter (for the uninitiated, a place where genius, rage and inadequacy coexist uncomfortably) would explode. Images of the relevant exchange would be retweeted in varying degrees of quality, the opinion of their curators indicated in a proud face emoji (assuming they’re a Spurs fan).

#HesOneOfOurOwn would start trending. Gifs and videos of the incident and retweets with heart emojis would litter timelines. 

Around ten minutes later the trolls would appear, as though alerted by an airhorn audible only to idiots. Vomiting emojis would creep into timelines. People purporting to be fans of opposition clubs would posit fake news theories. A publicity stunt for Harry Kane’s boot sponsor, Nike, would appear, presenting a new range of athletic wear for gay people.

Responses would quickly become polarised and the football equivalent of Godwin’s Law would kick in; ‘Kane is gay’ would be the inevitable, and disappointingly limited, conclusion. 

And Kane’s one of the good guys. He earns a lot of money, but he doesn’t drive a camouflage-wrapped Bentley. He’s never been photographed while being escorted out of a nightclub with his trousers around his knees (he’s also white). If this were Paul Pogba, or god forbid, Raheem Sterling, there would be genuine concern for their safety.

That’s not to say football’s failure to evolve can be blamed entirely on a culture of toxic masculinity. Rugby, a sport that prides itself on its grown up fans who are old enough to be allowed to drink in the stands, has its own issues with masculinity – just listen to the number of times “it’s a proper man’s game” is heard in bars in the Cotswolds during the Six Nations.

But in rugby, there’s a certain evidence of respect. I can’t say for certain whether this culture of sportsman-like respect enabled referee Nigel Owens to continue working after coming out as gay, but the vision of five muddied, blooded hulks taking a bollocking off a tiny bloke in shorts would suggest it played a part.

Ask a football fan what would happen if a gay man officiated a football match and watch them grimace. We’re still coming to terms with women running the line. It’s taken eight years, a relocation to Qatar, and a lot of counselling.

Despite money flooding into the game in tsunami-like waves, those who benefit (top clubs, governing bodies, players) have been reluctant to subvert the status quo. There are still no active, openly gay players in the English top flight. While the first player to take that step might receive the thumbs up from the fans and support from his colleagues, club and sponsors, the uncertainty makes it a risk too great to take.

Cricket, rugby, athletics, tennis and many other sports are flexible enough to embrace inclusivity. But as the world changes around it, football is suspended in a hormonal state similar to that of a fifteen year old boy: sexually inappropriate, confused, unable to drink in public without vomiting on someone’s shoes and dismissing offensive language and ideas as just “banter.”

Unless it changes with the times, football will perish in its fetid teenaged bedroom.

Kelly Welles is a freelance football and sports journalist. She tweets @kelly_welles

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