To American sports fans it now seems impossible that an out gay male athlete would face much abuse from fans. Regardless of the sport, we’ve seen gay athletes come out publicly in the United States and not face a torrent from the stands, whether it’s been Jason Collins in the NBA, Michael Sam in the NFL or Robbie Rogers in MLS.
If an athlete came out in English soccer? My guess is, unlike in the United States, he’d hear slurs and worse from the stands.
“I think there would be significant abuse because I don’t think we have cracked the problem yet. When you are in big crowd and its anonymous the bad people get brave.
“Our job is to stamp down hard on that behaviour. There was an example at the weekend, allegations at Leyton Orient versus Luton that Luton fans were hurling homophobic abuse, that behaviour is disgusting and needs stamping out and I’m determined we will stamp it out,” he said.
It’s something Robbie Rogers echoed when he joined the LA Galaxy, and something his teammate Robbie Keane said several years ago: The atmosphere in British soccer is way worse than American soccer.
Of course, many soccer fans behave like jerks at matches regardless of players’ sexual orientation. They are mean and abusive. Given what soccer players already experience across Europe, it couldn’t get much worse.
I do, however, think Clarke’s assumptions about the true attitude of fans toward gay athletes may have gone too far.
“The good news is we are not in denial there is deep loathing of that behaviour within football,” he said. “I am just cautious of encouraging people to come out until we have done our part of the bargain.”
As we’ve learned over and over again, the anti-gay chants and comments people make don’t necessarily mean “I hate gay people.” It’s the continued use of nasty comments to demean opponents and make them the “other” or “less-than.” Because of the macho world of sports, that often means using homosexuality as a weapon. The behavior may be gross, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect a “deep loathing” of gay people.
We saw it famously from Kobe Bryant, who called a referee a gay slur but doesn’t actually hate gay people.
What we have seen over and over and over is athletes coming out in environments where they hear gay slurs and other anti-gay language, and the people who used that language were often quick to apologize after they learned their teammate was gay.
Clarke is right: The FA has to do more to curb the behavior. But when he says “I won’t encourage anyone to come out,” he does a disservice to his athletes who continue to feel isolated in the closet.