Gay players set to break team taboo

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Three homosexual German professional footballers
have agreed to come out
of the closet, but only if campaigners can find eight more gay players to come out with them. One of the three is very prominent indeed, while the other two play in Germany’s lower divisions. It’s another sign that the last bastion of homophobia – male-team sports – is tottering.

It’s about time sport caught up with the revolution in public opinion. Next week Britain becomes the latest western country to recognise same-sex unions. The second-last bastion of homophobia, the armed forces, has already fallen in many western nations. The British armed forces not only admit gays, but send soldiers in tight T-shirts to march in “gay pride” parades as a recruitment device. The Canadian air force has hosted a gay wedding at an airbase. In Europe and North America, the proportion of people saying they have no problem with homosexuality increases each year.

However, conventional wisdom says that male sports teams and their fans remain too moronic to tolerate gays. Team sports have always been terrified of homosexuality partly because so many of their rituals appear homosexual. The single-sex community, shared showers, obsessive toning of bodies, hugs and kisses after scoring, fans singing of their love for a player – to admit the possibility of homosexuality would strip this world of its sexual innocence. It’s not that team sportsmen are all closet homosexuals. Rather, they expect to be able to be naked and loving together without having their sexuality questioned.

But it’s time to revise the conventional wisdom. Though some athletes are indeed morons, the majority are increasingly relaxed about homosexuality. The only gay team sportsman to declare his sexuality during his career, the Australian rugby league player Ian Roberts, discovered this on coming out in 1995. Most players in his working-class, macho sport supported him. “The public reaction when
I came out is my highlight over anything I’ve accomplished on the field,” Roberts said.

And the climate in the west has improved since. David Beckham is so comfortable as a gay icon that he has posed as a pin-up for the gay magazine Attitude. In the Nether-
lands, when the magazine Johan polled the nation’s professional footballers in 2002, only 20 per cent agreed with the statement: “There’s no place for homos in the football world.” And in the US last year, 74 per cent of 750 professional baseball players surveyed by the Tribune company said that having a gay team-mate would not bother them.

Attitudes have changed even faster in the stands. The Chicago Cubs baseball club introduced a “gay day” for fans in 2001. Named “Out at the ballgame”, it was a blast. Now the Cubs repeat it at one home game each season.

Other teams in North America’s most civilised cities – San Francisco, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh – have followed in pursuit of the pink dollar. A typical “gay day” features a homosexual men’s choir singing the national anthem, a gay celebrity throwing out the first pitch, and, during the seventh-inning stretch, the gay stand leading the crowd in a rendition of “YMCA”.

It’s possible to imagine something like this happening in Europe’s gayer football cities: London, Berlin or Cologne, say. Already several German clubs have gay fan groups, who typically wave rainbow flags bearing the club’s name.

Almost all the above has emanated from society. Now the sports bodies are starting to act. The first mover, oddly, has been England’s Football Association. Derided for decades as hidebound, last month it hosted a summit on homophobia. By the standards of football, this was wild.

The FA has embarrassed Uefa, the European football authority, into action. In February, a workshop at Uefa’s conference in Barcelona will discuss homophobia. William Gaillard, Uefa’s director
of communications, told
me: “At our level, gay footballers can be sure they will be protected.”

The first job is to find them. Presumably the players will emerge when they judge the environment friendly enough. We are not there yet. Banning morons who shout homophobic abuse would help. So would getting clubs and straight players to speak out.

Bet on a gay team sportsman to come out somewhere in 2006. It probably won’t be in American baseball or British football, though. The US and the UK are still among the western countries least tolerant
of gays. Germany – or
else Switzerland or a Scandinavian country – is more likely to be first.

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