Throughout modern history, people have used athletics as a method of eliciting social change since sports have a unique ability to influence prejudice.
This is because supporters’ opinions of players are generally formed solely based on performance. If an athlete plays well, fans will like them. If not, they won’t. It’s a somewhat simple dynamic. But what happens if you are racist and your team has a black player? What happens when you are heterosexist and your team has a gay player? Maybe you are more critical of that player, or less inclined to see their positive contributions. What if you are that player’s teammate or coach? The answer remains the same. If that player wins you a championship, I absolutely guarantee you won’t care about any of those things. Success wins hearts on the field.
This is how gay athletes can create change. Simply by performing well, they dispel myths created by prejudice and hatred. Their performance elicits the mental transition from GAY athlete to gay ATHLETE. Athletes are judged by their talent and success, not by their love interests. However, athletes who come out often face uncertain circumstances. They may lose their job, lose friends on the team, lose playing time, face hostile fans and enter a spotlight for criticism. It is extremely brave for them to come out publicly, but also incredibly important. They set an example for the rest of society, and can therefore bridge boundaries that individuals outside athletics cannot. They act as public figures and inspirations for LGBT youth who rarely have positive role models that they can identify with.
I came out publicly last year with a slightly different motivation. While I wish the reasons above were more applicable to me, I recognize that as a college soccer player, my sphere of influence is not very large. Instead, my intention was simply to start a dialogue. No change ever happens without a discussion.
I am currently playing Division I soccer at Bucknell University, and Robbie Rogers is playing in the MLS, both of us as openly gay men. My experiences and Rogers’ accomplishments show that openly gay players can be welcomed and successful at a competitive level. And although I know college soccer in the U.S. does not remotely face the same scrutiny as World Cup players, there are still lessons to be learned. I am only able to be successful at Bucknell because of the acceptance and understanding of my teammates, coaches, and the athletic department and university as a whole. They have supported me through every decision, and had my back at every turn. Any player who comes out without all of those support systems in place will likely have a much more difficult time being successful, especially at the highest levels, such as the World Cup. This is why FIFA must act to ensure that there is a safety net for gay players who decide to come out publicly.
As the World Cup kicks off Thursday, the international community will turn its attention to Brazil. Due to the global concerns with the Sochi Olympics, international dialogue about athletics was dominated by discussions surrounding sexuality. Additionally, Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and Robbie Rogers have been bringing media attention to gay athletes in the United States. As a soccer player, I must wonder: where will these conversations lead in the context of the World Cup?
These American athletes were able to come out successfully due to multiple reasons. First, the attitude of American society is shifting and non-heterosexuality is becoming increasingly more accepted. Second, many straight athletes in these professional leagues have come out publicly as gay allies. Third, the league administrations in some cases have made massive strides in promoting inclusion and educating other players and coaches. They have followed through with strict penalties against those who disrespect diversity. This is all made possible because of the active conversation that has finally infiltrated the sports world in the U.S. While looking at the possibilities for gay players or allies in the World Cup, we must recognize how that stage is different from the context of American sports.
The World Cup is huge, with close to 1 billion viewers worldwide. To get there, 203 teams competed for 32 spots in the tournament. Brazil will most likely spend $11.7 billion preparing for the Cup. Yet on this massive stage that connects the entire world, where are the discussions about respecting diversity? There are none.
FIFA is the ruling body of international soccer (football). Similarly to the administrative bodies that manage American athletics, FIFA has begun addressing issues related to diversity. However, it does not seem to recognize its pivotal role in shaping this discussion. By focusing almost entirely on racism, FIFA has ignored the crucial conversations surrounding sexism and heterosexism, as well as other forms of discrimination.
Extremely few World Class soccer players have publicly come out as a straight ally (and being an ally is much different than simply being supportive), and there are no publicly out non-heterosexual players participating in the World Cup. This is not coincidence; it is an effect caused by the heterosexist culture of the sport, meaning that no player will be able to do so until the culture within the sport has changed.
While acknowledging that some parts of the world are not yet receptive to the concept of equal rights for LGBTQ people, there are definitely parts that are more accepting – such as Western Europe, Australia and South America -- where the soccer culture is lagging behind. And although these controversial topics are typically much more difficult to effectively address in an international context, FIFA has still done very little to support the process as a whole. It has not attempted to educate players or coaches about respect regardless of ANY DIFFERENCES (including sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc.), real or perceived. FIFA's narrow approach to racism has only stifled the goal to respect diversity in all of its forms. And arguably, its lack of progressive leadership on this issue is the reason that heterosexism is still so powerful in international soccer, even if the individual cultures are accepting.
Additionally, FIFA needs to publicly and actively support non-heterosexual players as well as straight allies. No high-profile players in the World Cup have made big strides in advocating for the LGBTQ community, though Neymar is among a half-dozen Brazilian World Cup players appearing in YouTube's #ProudToPlay video. Yet in American sports, players from all leagues (including players on the American World Cup team) have announced and pledged their support for LGBTQ equal rights. So where is this presence in international soccer? Why is there a disconnect between sport culture and societal culture?
The players themselves need to actively change the cultural attitude. We need outspoken allies on the world stage, who can both potentially change minds within the context of World Cup soccer, but also reshape the conversation around global LGBTQ equality.
FIFA needs to accept its role as a governing body of the world’s most popular sport. It has the ability and responsibility to promote equal treatment, equal rights, and human dignity through its own actions and by supporting others who choose to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ community. If it commits to doing so, it has the potential to spread acceptance and respect for diversity on and off the field, thus reshaping the culture of world class soccer for the better. Isn’t it about time?
Jesse Klug, 20, is an upcoming junior (class of 2016) playing Division I soccer at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He is pursuing a major in the School of Management. He is originally from Seattle and played on the Seattle Sounders FC Academy Team in high school. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @jesse_klug. Klug wrote an essay last year answering those who disapprove of homosexuality.