There were some things that were missing from the soccer World Cup that just wrapped: Stars like Rio Ferdinand and Michael Ballack were injured, Ronaldinho wasn’t even capped, and Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres underperformed. There were things we’ll miss: the mercilessly counter-attacking Germans, Diego Maradona at the Argentinian bench, a shirtless Lukas Podolski. But more conspicuously absent that any of those, and likely to remain so even at the next World Cup, were the gay players. There weren’t any. None. At all.
At least not publicly. Sure, on the surface, the signals coming from Germany may suggest that that’s about to change. Quoted by Aleksander Osang in an essay for Der Spiegel, Ballack’s agent, Michael Becker, said he knew for a fact that “a bunch” of the German players are gay (here’s to hoping Podolski’s one of them. And maybe Jerome Boateng. Or Holger Badstuber. Toni Kroos, too? etc). He could well be right. There’s no reason to believe there really aren’t any gay players who have reached the prominence of the national team. Still, there are two very dismaying things about Becker’s claim.
The first one is obvious: If German soccer had been truly welcoming to gays, these unnamed, closeted players wouldn’t have to become pioneers. They wouldn’t be the first players at this level known to be gay, and they wouldn’t feel like they had to deny it. The other thing is both less obvious, and potentially more damaging to the cause of gay liberation in soccer: As paraphrased by the English newspaper The Guardian, Becker apparently said that the fact that the German team had so many gay players could help explain why they didn’t reach the final. I honestly don’t know what’s more disturbing; his claim that the players’ sexuality explained their light and elegant style of play, or the claim that only heterosexuals can play the aggressive soccer that has served Germany so well in the past, and that might have taken them past Spain in the semi-final for a shot at the title.
Spun in the most positive possible way, I guess the “light and elegant” comment could be taken as the most backhanded of compliments, but even so, it’s counterproductive. Not only does it reinforce the utterly bogus belief that all gays are physically weak and wimpy, it implies that an influx of openly gay players will inevitably mean a feminization of soccer. As anyone who has seen Brazil’s Marta play would tell you, women are perfectly capable of playing great soccer, but that’s not the point here. In the context of Becker’s remarks, the mere implication that homosexuality somehow emasculates the game runs the risk of discouraging gay talent from pursuing a soccer career, if someone like Becker is representative of the soccer world’s attitude towards gays within its ranks.
Fact is that the closest the soccer world has come to an an openly gay player who didn’t eventually kill himself after having been accused of pedophilia – like Justin Fashanu did – are three straight players. I’ve written about the England international Graeme Le Saux struggle with homophobic bullying previously, and won’t repat it here. David James, a veteran of the English national team, wrote a column for The Guardian about homophobia in soccer, which no doubt fueled vitriolic speculation that he was gay himself. Finally, and even more hearteningly, the former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg told gay.com that he was “proud” of the rumors that he’s gay. His sin, apparently, was having a fashion sense and a soft spot for musicals. This is a sport, after all, in which, according to LeSaux, reading a broadsheet would equal confessing same-sex attractions (“Guardian reader equals gay boy,” as he memorably put it).
Much has been written about whether professional soccer is inherently homophobic, and judging from a report published by Stonewall UK last fall, there might be something to that. No one seems to agree who are to blame – fans, fellow players, administrative officials, fans – but they do seem to agree that the sum of it all adds up to a tough environment for gay players. One example: Even in his sympathetic Guardian column hoping for a brighter future for gays in soccer, James couldn’t get himself to condemn his former teammate Robbie Fowler (once a hero of mine) for taking homophobic abuse of LeSaux from the stands to the pitch. Sure, Fowler’s a friend of his, but as long as obvious homophobia as this is written off a something equivalent to a botched joke, we can’t expect the problem to go away, or even get under control.
This is not exclusively a soccer problem, of course. As far as I know, John Amaechi is still the only basketball player to have come out, and he didn’t feel he could do so until he retired from the NBA. And even then, the reactions were decidedly mixed. Several players, while generally supportive, mad an issue of a perceived “awkwardness” in the locker room, and said that they would be okay with it, as long as a gay player wouldn’t try to hit on them. Leave aside for a moment the ridiculous hyper-sexualization of gayness in these statements – contrary to the opinions of people uncomfortable with, or underexposed to homosexuality, gay people don’t consider all guys potential sexual partners. What this hangup on locker room dynamics really reminds me of, though, is the debate over gays in the American military.
The debate over repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that bars openly gay soldiers from service, often boils down to the issue of “troop cohesion”. Social conservatives and self-described defense hawks of both parties routinely assure the public that they don’t harbor prejudices against gays; they just happen to believe that the presence of openly gay soldiers would destabilize unity and negatively affect troop cohesion. Never mind that other countries have allowed gay soldiers to serve for years without negative consequences of any sort, or that the generation that’s actually recruited into the military is much less c0ncerned about homosexuality than the politicians who say they know what they think.
It was the story of the late Brendan Burke that made me think about this. The son of NHL general manager Bryan Burke and himself a manager in college hockey, Brendan Burke was welcomed in the hockey world when he came out, is truly heartening. But even that story, as told with heartbreaking sincerity by Brendan’s brother, the NHL scout Patrick Burke, included this caveat:
A little known fact about this piece [about Brendan’s coming out] is that Coach Blasi was given veto power over the entire piece. Brendan did not want to be a distraction from the team in any way and told Rico he would walk away from the article if Rico wanted him to.
I suppose this is mostly about loyalty. Athletes in team sports are taught that the team is more important than the individual, and I guess that mantra is even more pronounced on the managing side. Nonetheless, I would hope that we’ll soon enter a time when gays won’t need to ask permission or fear for the athletic fortunes of their team if they decide to come out. The main thing to take away from Burke’s story, however, is this: Honesty pays off. If you give people the chance to get to know who you really are, the people rushing to your defense will vastly outnumber the bigots. Says Patrick Burke: “There is, of course, the possibility that [gays] will face hardships, insults, and confusion from teammates, opponents, and fans. But those minds can be changed. They will be changed.” Let’s hope he’s right.
So, where does that leave soccer? In a sense, it seems to be behind even the unimpressive records of sports like basketball and hockey. It would be great to have a leader, one of the greats of the game, come out and show that homosexuality and soccer are not opposites. But before we should even expect that from someone, the soccer world needs to clean up its act. Campaigns like ‘Kick Homophobia Out of Football’ are good, and so are stringent rules to prevent homophobic abuse by or against fans, referees or players, or for that matter, efforts to create gay-friendly environments within the clubs themselves. In the short run, though, it’s encouraging to see the blowback against Michael Becker. The soccer world seems to understand that he’s not just prejudiced against people. He’s prejudiced against soccer itself. That may be even worse.