A former Premiership footballer has claimed that gay players are being prevented from “coming out” by fans, rather than because of the attitudes of fellow footballers.
Former Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur and England midfielder Jermaine Jenas, writing for Yahoo News following media speculation that some footballers may be set to “come out”, said that he is sure there are gay footballers but that the cultural change needed to encourage more to be honest about their sexuality has to happen on the terraces rather than in dressing rooms.
“I’m not surprised we still haven’t seen one come out”, says Jenas. “I have never come across a single player who has come out in English football, but that’s not because of players’ attitudes. The place a gay player would get the most support – and the least amount of problems – is from their team-mates. When you’re in a football team you’re in it together, no matter what, and every player would accept a gay team-mate with no problem whatsoever. This is something that has already been borne out in the rugby world, but the difference between football and rugby is what happens on the terraces.”
The England star made a comparison between the culture of the two sports, suggesting that it’s a fear of abuse – something he sees as not applicable in rugby – that holds gay players back from coming out. “Football is a game where we still have fans meeting up for a pre-match scrap – we’re talking borderline caveman stuff. You can imagine the homophobic songs that would rear their heads if a football player came out as gay”, he explains.
Jenas spoke about his own experiences and the homophobic abuse he received himself while playing for Tottenham, itself fuelled by speculation in certain circles about his sexual orientation. He explains: “Just after I left Newcastle for Spurs, somebody somewhere started a rumour that I was gay. I’d play at certain grounds and hear certain shouts about certain things. It never bothered me, but it might have done if I really was gay.
“Some of the things I heard about myself were hilarious. Apparently I’d come to London because I was dating Pop Idol winner Will Young, then I was going out with [England and Arsenal defender] Sol Campbell.” Other rumours began to circulate about him having an affair with Ashley Cole, and it is obvious that the questions surrounding his sexuality were intended as slurs. “I was a Tottenham player hanging around with someone from Arsenal, a lot of people didn’t like it. So it was a bit of a ‘coincidence’ that the gay rumour started then… I’d take a corner and their fans would be shouting ‘Ashley’s boyfriend’.”
Jenas believes that while the abuse he receives was low-level and quite minimal, it offered an insight into what would face any player brave enough to “come out”. Contrasting this with the progress made in combating racism within football to the situation, he thinks that “now should a better time than ever for a player to come out…but it still wouldn’t be easy. Whoever does it first will be a pioneer, paving the way for others, and they may have to put up with some tricky situations – and just not from the fans.
“I can’t pretend that footballers are all lovely people who will be on the pitch saying, ‘Well done for coming out. That was very brave.’ It’s a cut-throat business where people are trying to find a weakness and get a reaction, so a gay player would certainly have to deal with that. [But] the players aren’t really the issue; it’s the rest of the game.”
Jenas suggests, however, that it’s only a matter of time until a gay player does “come out” – and that the game’s organising bodies, and the clubs, should be prepared in advance to support any player courageous enough to take the leap. “It’s most important that if and when another player does come out, they feel they have the full support of players, the league, the PFA and hopefully their clubs too”, he says. But how much time? “I personally don’t think we’ll see a Premier League coming out in the near future, although I sincerely hope I’m wrong. It would be an interesting time for football, and it’s an opportunity to gauge how much the sport has evolved. Because if we can’t deal with that, it would show we’re still in the iron age.”