It seemed like a great opportunity for members of England's Premier League to show their support for LGB equality. Stonewall, a national LGB rights group, was teaming up with online betting company Paddy Power to ask Premier League footballers to wear rainbow-colored shoe laces during matches this past weekend in a new campaign they called Right Behind Gay Footballers.
While the campaign attracted headlines, it also alienated some key people in soccer, few people in the Premier League participated, and the tagline left various LGBT activists disappointed and offended.
At the heart of the issue, Paddy Power and Stonewall ignored a lesson sports teach us at a very young age: To win, you have to play like a team.
Instead of reaching out to the Football Association and the Premier League as they developed the campaign, Paddy Power and Stonewall put together the pieces behind closed doors, launched it in a public manner just days before the campaign started, and tried to hold football hostage over participation.
"They'll have to do it," the thinking went, "or they'll be labeled homophobic."
The problem with that tactic? It gave an easy out. People in sports don't like ball hogs. They don't like people who feel they can win matches by themselves. People want to win, and they want to do it together, as a team, with everyone from the secretary to the leading scorer left feeling like they were a part of every win.
Instead, Stonewall and Paddy Power wanted to own the campaign themselves, and in turn the campaign suffered.
"We were not consulted about this particular campaign," the Premier League said in a statement. "Had we been involved earlier in the process we could have worked with Stonewall to consider things like boot deals, the use of particular betting partners."
If they had played their cards right -- if they had involved the Football Association and the Premier League from day one -- Stonewall and Paddy Power could have had virtually every player on every team wearing those rainbow laces on Saturday.
Instead, they decided to go it alone and it backfired. Everton was the only Premier League club to don the rainbow laces as a team, largely because they have a partnership deal with Paddy Power. A smattering of individual players wore them as well, but the impact was lost.
Paddy Power had initially approached Football v. Homophobia, a long-standing campaign to end homophobia in soccer, for a partnership. FvH declined the opportunity in large part due to the tagline of the campaign: Right Behind Gay Footballers. They said, in a statement:
Our discomfort is with the reliance on sexualised innuendo and stereotypes about gay men and anal sex, as exemplified by the tag line ‘Right Behind Gay Players'. As an initiative with a strong focus on education, we feel it is incongruous to run a campaign aiming to change football culture whilst using language which reinforces the very stereotypes and caricatures that, in the long term, ensure that homophobia persists. There is a long history, perhaps best captured by the infamous Robbie Fowler incident, whereby anal sex has been the focus of homophobic abuse in the sport.
Despite the legitimate complaints, the campaign did get some public attention:
- Labor MPs wore the laces during their annual "friendly" against the press.
- Stonewall claimed the hashtag associated with the laces - #rgbf (right behind gay footballers) - was used a quarter billion times in a week.
- Pro footballer Joey Barton was the "face" of the campaign, attracting the participation of a few individual players like Phil Jagielka, Leroy Fer, Russell MartinJohn, Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie.
- Match of the Day host Gary Lineker wore them on his Saturday football show.
But the aim of the laces -- to get them on Premier League players and have the top-level athletes show their support for ending homophobia -- didn't materialize the way it could have. The campaign drew as much criticism as praise, all because the organizers didn't want to involve key power brokers before taking credit themselves.
An interesting part of the two organizing groups' statement last week announcing the campaign stuck out to me:
The campaign's simple message of ‘Right Behind Gay Footballers' is designed to kick start a change in attitudes and make our national game more gay-friendly.
This is particularly offensive to me. This campaign didn't kick starting anything. The movement to change attitudes in sports started decades ago. I see so many Johnny-come-lately groups and individuals claim they are starting a movement in sports on this issue; It's particularly self-absorbed and ignores the work done by legendary activists across the globe for years.
I saw some complaints that this was a publicity stunt for Paddy Power. I personally couldn't care less about that piece. If the end result is powerful and helps affect change, that's fantastic. Some have claimed that Nike's involvement with the LGBT Sports Coalition is just a publicity stunt, too. It's not, but even if it were, we need the support wherever we can get it.
With all the controversy over tactics, the reaction to the campaign has strengthened the perception that professional sports are no place for LGBT people. Some will claim that since so many footballers objected to the campaign, it shows how anti-gay they really are. Given the real reasons so many -- including LGBT activists -- had a problem with it, this doesn't help anybody.
To beat anti-LGBT bias in sports, every one of us has to remember Rule No. 1: If you want to win, you have to play like a team. Hopefully the next time this laces campaign is forged, key power brokers will be part of the development before an attempt to hold them hostage.
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