Soccer (football), tennis, basketball, American football, rugby – these are some of the most popular sports in the world with fans and audiences of billions. Yet, they carry one of the biggest stigmas: professional athletes rarely openly talk about their sexual preferences especially if they’re active players, as homophobia is prominent in professional sports.
Research shows that 80% of both LGBT+ and straight people have experienced or witnessed homophobic behavior in sports. While LGBT+ campaigns against homophobia in sports are getting more frequent by the year and discussions about LGBT+ players in sports are getting more public space, there are just a few high-profile players who have decided to come out in public.
Former Premier League soccer player and German international, Thomas Hitzlsperger, is considered a pioneer regarding coming out as a professional athlete. In an interview for The Guardian in 2014, Hitzlsperger claimed that he has always wanted to tell the world that he was gay but was advised against it. However, he did come out, earning the status of the first high-profile soccer player who publicly declared himself as gay.
As Hitzlsperger witnessed, homosexuality was rarely discussed in locker rooms, except in forms of speculation about someone who was not present at the moment. He even admitted playing along when he was younger, in some odd situations, when he himself would use derogatory terms and slurs. Encouraged by other players, like John Amaechi (retired NBA player), Gareth Thomas (Welsh rugby star) and Tom Daley (Olympic diver), who came out, Hitzlsperger wanted to inspire and show support for other football players who might be struggling to open up. Known as the Hammer among his fans, he says that being a professional player and homosexual is normal. Anyone, who’d see him play, couldn’t say that there is something off or ”too soft” with his game.
Another Hitzlsperger inspiration was Robbie Rogers, a former American soccer star. Rogers speaks (and writes) about his early youth, pretending and lying, only to fit into a presumption of what a footballer should be like. He felt like an outcast, as there were no publicly gay men in football. When asked if he knows of other gay men in professional football, Robbie said he didn’t know, but he was sure there were a lot, adding in a jokey way – “many footballers are dressing really well”. “We’ve been trained by our agents how to do interviews, how to present ourselves”, he said, “We’re such great actors.”
Rogers left the game after he came out. Soon after him, Jason Collins, the NBA player, also came out with the words ”I am black. And I am gay”. Collins pondered what if he had come out earlier, as a kid in school, would anything be different or easier for someone else in sports? Maybe. But since it didn’t happen, he felt the need to raise his hand now hoping that it might inspire others.
Let’s not forget the professional female athletes. Women in sports, who are lesbians or bi, have also reported being stigmatized and experiencing discrimination, especially if they play a traditionally male sport or if they don’t conform to feminine appearance standards. These include widely known tennis players like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Amélie Mauresmo; Patty Sheehan, Rosie Jones and Alena Sharp in golf; Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Brittney Griner in basketball; and Abby Wambach, Erin McLeod, and Megan Rapinoe in soccer.
What all these pioneers, men and women, have in common is the fact that most of them only felt free to speak up as they were reaching the end of their professional careers. This brings back the question: What about the current and active professional athletes?
Back in the 90s, the footballer, Justin Fashanu, made headlines as the first professional player to come out as gay. Facing everyday pressure, this young ground-breaker took his own life. After this tragedy, there were years of silence, until aforementioned Rogers and quite recently, until the Australian sportsman, Josh Cavallo, came out as gay in October 2021. Cavallo is currently the only top-flight male professional footballer in the world to do so.
Cavallo’s announcement was met with overwhelming public support by footballers and other athletes. A week later, following Cavallo’s coming out, another professional Spanish soccer player announced that he is bisexual, but choose to stay anonymous for now. This unnamed player believes that the message and the support for the movement is more important than a name, as he said in a letter sent to Radio Murcia Cadena Ser.
If we are to believe that we really live in times in which social norms are heading towards tolerance and acceptance for all, it appears that this tendency is least visible within sports, especially in male-dominant team sports. Here, being gay is perceived as being soft and weak. This stereotype is the one that every person, mentioned in this blog, has faced, and each one of them represents its negation – a contradiction of what the public often thinks a gay athlete would behave or look like.
With the exception of a few men and women in sports, certain clubs and leagues, who try to be inclusive and supportive, the truth is that homophobia still thrives in sports. The participation in sports, especially in team sports, has a priority status in many countries when it comes to public health policies. Particularly, for psychosocial and physical conditioning of the youths.
Yet, a 2020 study showed that, in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, almost 50% of LGBT+ individuals experienced some kind of homophobic treatment, even more so if they’ve been open about their sexual preferences. Over 70% of LGBT+ people and straight people believe it is not safe to come out in sport’s environments. The data shows that the prejudicial nature of sport spaces can serve as a deterrent for athletic participation for gay males in particular, as this population appears to be targeted harshly.
Instead of justifying homophobic comments towards opposing teams by saying it’s not personal, comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes should not be part of the game. Yes, not everyone does it but even if a few do, it’s a problem for LGBT+ players. It even seems fair to question the role of the media, especially when reporting on homophobic outbursts from the fans and some players.
Considering the high suicide rates among LGBT+ youth, mainly connected to homophobic environments, something so mainstream as sports shouldn’t normalize homophobia as an everyday practice. Homophobia is not a about sex. If anything, it’s a conversation about rights, values and respect. And addressing homophobia in sports is everyone’s responsibility.