GARETH THOMAS: Ending homophobia in football needs more than lip service, it needs you

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One syllable, two syllables, three. Whatever it is.

The sound made by your mouth, travelling down from the stands, hitting my eardrum and registering in my brain. All those horrible words used to abuse gay people, rattling around in my head, chipping away at my will to live.

That one simple word, once it leaves their lips; how that can get to someone and create such horrible, negative thoughts – to the point of questioning why they even exist, let alone play the sport they love – then they would not only not say it, but they’d stop others from saying similar things.

Need More Than Lip Service

Empathy is what is needed. If you could understand what your words did to me and how they affected me, I guarantee you wouldn’t do it again. If I could put someone in the room the time I tried to kill myself, I could make them see how alone I felt, you would never again think about abusing someone for their sexuality.

I’d heard rumours going around about me and I wasn’t ready to confront them. I wanted to be judged on what I did out on the pitch and for people to judge you based on your sexuality, it makes you wonder why you’ve been put on the planet. Playing the sport you’ve loved yet being targeted for your sexual orientation – it’s horrific. All you want to do is make people happy, all these people want to do is make you sad.

People shout words without thinking about their consequences. To them it might be a laugh, but they don’t realise the effect it can have on someone or the state of mind it can put someone in. The person saying it – if he only thought about the people in his own life or the likelihood that eventually someone in his family would be gay – he wouldn’t do it.

You Chant Avoid Change

To all the homophobic sports fans out there:

the players aren’t homophobic, the coaches aren’t homophobic, the clubs aren’t homophobic –
it really is all down to you

Fans are the be all and end all when it comes to ending homophobia in football. If a zero tolerance rule was brought in and individuals moved away from saying homophobic things, that’s how we create real change and an environment in which gay players can feel comfortable. Players have shown the Rainbow Laces campaign such massive support that the message has to be getting through to the terraces. The louder and more often the players talk about it, the quicker attitudes will change. The fans respect the players and if they are clear about their disdain for homophobia, attitudes will change.

You don’t pay your money to make judgments about someone’s sexuality. You pay to see incredible athletes do the incredible things they’ve devoted their lives to perfecting. If fans see that their hero fully supports a gay player playing with him or on the opposition team, then will we see this kind of abuse fade away.

First Draft Of Progress

It’s been suggested that the St. Louis Rams let go of Michael Sam (the first openly gay active player in the NFL) because of all the extra attention that comes with having him on their roster. I doubt that’s the case. They’ve already got the bulk of the attention for drafting him in the first place and at some point they clearly rated his ability highly enough to think he was worth bringing into the squad. I would like to think their decision is for sporting reasons and I believe that’s the case. The fact he was put on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad so soon after suggest they think he’s at a similar level in terms of ability and his sexuality isn’t an issue for NFL teams.

Some of the best players in the world bring baggage, independent of sexuality. Eric Cantona springs to mind. Ability should be the deciding factor in whether a player joins a team and if he’s likely to bring extra attention, the club need to decide whether this attention is worth what that person brings to the club, both on and off the pitch. Sexuality should not come in to it and what I’m fighting for is for all athletes to be judged purely on ability.

My experience of coming out – based on the players I played with and against and the clubs I played for and against – was nothing short of 100% support. At the boardroom level, there may well have been discussions about whether having me brought too much baggage, but never was that message relayed to me nor did I get the impression that was their stance. It was always positivity. I have some sympathy for the people running that clubs because they’ve got so many different strands of a club to keep happy, they’ve got some difficult decisions to make. They may not personally be homophobic, but it’s natural they’ll have concerns about how their supporters will react. It’s not right, but I can understand the train of thought. All I experienced was massive support.

Still Have Sam Concerns

What disappoints me about the Michael Sam story is I thought we were in a position in which a young, up and coming star could be treated and respected entirely on his ability. I was lucky to come out later in my career because I had a certain standing in the game, achieved a lot and earned a lot of respect from the supporters. I wonder if I’d been starting out in my career, would things have gone so smoothly? Sadly I doubt it, which is a really depressing thought.

Rainbow Laces is of course about combating homophobia in general, but it seems to be the thought of gay male athletes that causes the greatest discomfort for football fans. Lesbian sports stars are way further down the path to acceptance than male athletes. I talk to Martina Navratilova a lot and see talks about tennis fans sitting on their hands and refusing to clap when she won points after she came out.

Their struggle began a long time ago and as a result, people have got used to it, but for male athletes, it’s still very new. Plus, the characteristics associated with athletic success such as strength and aggression fit more naturally into people’s perception of lesbianism while the effeminate nature of the stereotypical gay man doesn’t fit so neatly and is a bit harder to get your head around.

Rainbow Laces is the start. As we’ve seen with lesbian athletes, change will come. It’s inevitable, but it could do with being coming along a bit sooner. Change comes on an individual level. It only takes two minutes to lace and change the game. It may not feel like much, but trust me – if attitudes change person by person, it will make a difference to gay athletes out there.

  • Tweet your support for #RainbowLaces. Tweet players, clubs or your pals to encourage them to show we’ve got the balls to change the game.
  • How to get Rainbow Laces: You can get Rainbow Laces at any Paddy Power Shop (shop locator here) or via Stonewall here

What do you think?