On Monday I had the pleasure of attending the first Rainbow Laces Summit, hosted by Manchester United and organized by Stonewall in the United Kingdom. The day was filled with insights, stories and perspectives about the current state of LGBT acceptance in sports. I listened intently and learned a ton.
But mostly, it was inspiring to hear the people who are out and LGBT in sports talk with such enthusiasm about finding near-universal acceptance in sports after coming out. Rugby’s Keegan Hirst. Auto racing’s Danny Watts. Field hockey Olympians Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. As we know from countless LGBT people in sports who have come out, we are nearly universally accepted by our fellow athletes and fans in the United States and England.
Sadly, Football Association chief Greg Clarke didn’t hear that message. He was in the room, but he didn’t hear it. He spoke yet again about his perceptions on acceptance in football, painting a dire picture for any LGBT person in his sport who might think of coming out.
He should have done less talking and more listening.
One particular thing that Clarke said revealed how backward and outright dangerous his leadership is on LGBT issues in football.
He claimed, as has been widely reported, that it will be two decades before men’s football can be an accepting, welcoming place for LGBT people. Of course, Clarke would say that his plan is to open men’s football to LGBT people far sooner, but he just thinks it will take 20 years because the players and fans are so backward.
As the head of the Football Association, the goals and messages he puts out there publicly drive belief and reflect the tenor of his plans. What he says publicly sets the agenda.
What he’s really saying is “I have no idea what I’m doing on this issue, but I’m going to keep making it look like I’m doing something.”
That translates into conversations about “sensitivity training” for the front office executives of teams and slapping sanctions on players and fans who use homophobic language.
These things don’t hurt; They are positive steps. Yet these steps don’t ultimately change an athlete, coach or manager’s willingness to be his true self. They build courage in team staffers to be sure, but they don’t help athletes be their true selves.
What Clarke and so many fail to see is that football, at the very highest levels in England, is already “ready” for a gay athlete, a gay manager or anyone else to come out.
One of the most revealing Summit speakers of the day was Sophie Cook. Cook has done what Clarke has not: Come out in football.
She is the photographer for AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League. She was a photographer for the team and transitioned publicly after sharing her gender identity with the team front office and players.
Like everyone else, she believed people like Clarke, who convince LGBT people in football to be afraid of coming out, that they will be attacked by fans and could lose their job.
So what was the team’s scary response?
The players gave her a round of applause.
The front office executives assured her she would keep her job.
The fans have been nothing but wonderful.
So why do Clarke and the other old straight white guys in suits not see the true heart of the athletes and fans they claim to serve?
Old straight white guys aren’t very good at actually listening.
I was at a table with an older gentleman who works with the Professional Footballers Association. We had a table-wide exercise in the middle of the summit to talk about solutions for our organization.
There were five of us at the table, including two black women and two gay men. The old man spoke for almost all of the first nine of our 10 minutes, holding court as the rest of us listened.
“So what’s the solution?” He asked as our time, and his talking, wore down.
I stared at him. He noticed.
“The real issue is identifying the problem,” I said.
“What do you mean? We know what the problem is, now how do we fix it?” He replied.
I asked him if he is straight. I figured we was, given his powerful position with the Football Players Association, but I wanted to make sure. He assured me he was.
“Here we are at a diversity summit,” I said. “You have two black women at the table and two gay men, and we just spent 90% of our table’s time listening to the old straight white guy talk.”
He looked back at one of the women he knew, then looked back at me, totally perplexed.
“That’s the problem,” I continued. “The straight white guys just won’t stop talking and listen a little more to the people who might truly have some answers.”
Our time together ended, and he hurried off. I have little hope he actually heard what I was saying.
It’s the one weakness of all of these well-intentioned summits with really good conversations: The people who most need to be there to listen never are. And for the short period of time that they are there, they end up doing much of the talking.
It’s hard to listen well when your lips are moving.
If Clarke, the Football Association and the Football Players’ Association really want to change football, they will open their ears and eyes to how very much the sport has already changed.
They will listen to the research that Stonewall presented at the summit, which demonstrates that homophobic chants and stupid on-the-field comments don’t reflect a deep rejection of LGBT people.
And they will take these messages not just to the public, but to LGBT individuals in their sport. The will identify those people, guarantee them support, supply them with the resources they need to be their true selves, and help them come out privately and/or publicly when they are ready to take the leap.
They will help them get “ready.”
“But we can’t force anyone to come out,” Clarke reiterated more than once at the Summit. Of course we can’t. That’s not what I’m saying.
As the head of the Football Association, in concert with the Premier League and other levels of English football, Clarke is able to ensure LGBT individuals that they have the security and the resources to come out.
“I can’t even get a gay footballer to talk to me,” he said on Monday.
I call bullshit.
The issue is, he’s not trying. It’s not a priority for him or the Football Players’ Association. If he wanted to talk to LGBT people in his sport, he would.
There are players and agents and media members in and around the various levels of the Football Association who know of gay athletes, coaches and managers. If Clarke and the FPA really wanted to identify those gay players and managers and coaches at all levels of football, and get those individuals every shred of personal support they need to be their true selves, they would and they could.
Bold leadership requires bold steps. Clarke, the FA and FPA all have to decide if they want to be bold, or if they just want to keep looking like they’re doing something.