I had a feeling it was coming. Like the Richard-III-under-the-car-park lady whose every nerve fizzed when she peered at a dried-up old tibia in a trench, I sensed an outing was afoot. It’s why I published Disunited as rapidly as I could.
Robbie Rogers, of Leeds United and the US international team, has come out. He’s not — and I’m sure he’d be the first to agree — the most famous footballing name in this country. At least, he wasn’t. But it was never likely to be someone at the very top of the game who would be first to jump out of the closet.
All the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere to Rogers’ announcement has been positive: from his teammates, from the authorities, from respected elders such as the blessed Gary Lineker (crisps be upon him), and of course from the gay community. To my surprise even people sending him messages on Twitter — numbering in the several thousands it seems — appear universally to be praising him. If there are negative reactions, they’re drowned out by the positive. It’s a heartwarming response.
But the good wishes are sprinkled with disappointment. Please don’t retire. Put your boots back on. Shame you had to quit.
The sad truth is that Rogers has decided to stop playing, with immediate effect. He’s not, after all, going to be the first out gay player in the British game since Justin Fashanu: he’s going to be one of the many sportsmen who waited until retirement before coming out.
In fact it’s worse: he retired, seemingly, expressly so he could come out.
“Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations.”
“Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams.”
“Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”
Painfully honest, and moving, and damning.
No outpouring of support and best wishes and congratulations from teammates and authorities and elders and strangers can whitewash the blunt truth: even today, even after anti-discrimination laws, even after civil partnerships, even after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to support equal marriage, in football it seems you can be gay — or you can play.
The sport should be ashamed of this reality.
It is not enough the Professional Footballers’ Association bland-tweeting vacuousness like this:
It “fully supports” a “courageous decision”. As Danny Prince’s agent Cherie would say in Disunited: “Of course it bleedin’ does. What they gonna say, titter titter don’t drop the soap?”
The FA has issued a similarly weedy press release. Eight short paragraphs — three of which aren’t about Rogers at all — patting itself on the back for doing the barest minimum.
Messages like these from the FA and PFA are sonar pings: simple acknowledgements of simple truths. Glossy FA brochures and platitudes about “support” cannot make up for the years of fudging, of shelved campaigns, of pocket-money fines, of lack of any substantial action.
In my view the leadership of the PFA and the FA should be prostrating themselves before the media begging forgiveness. They should be admitting that their organisations have failed utterly to support gay players, by not speaking out and acting more strongly against homophobia within the game. Homophobia such as anti-gay chanting from travelling supporters towards the home crowd at Brighton and Hove Albion, which has become worse in recent years. Even last Tuesday the Blackburn Rovers player Colin Kazim-Richards allegedly made homophobic gestures towards fans on “at least five occasions” during their match at Brighton. Kazim-Richards is an official campaigner for Kick It Out, the FA’s anti-racism initiative.
The authorities take racist behaviour seriously, and yet don’t seem to treat homophobia in football the same way. This fails gay supporters — of which there are many — and it fails gay players.
It is the responsibility of the FA and the PFA to make the game safe for gay players to come out, just as it is their responsibility to rid the game of racism to allow players of all backgrounds to succeed.
Just as the game — not the player — would be shamed if a non-white player retired rather than play in an atmosphere of hate, the game is shamed when a gay man like Robbie Rogers does the same.
Read these sentences again:
The FA: “The Football Association has offered its full support to former Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers after he came out as gay.”
The PFA: “The PFA fully supports Robbie Rogers in taking the courageous decision to announce that he is gay.”
Robbie Rogers: “Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”