Editor’s note: After 19 years of telling the stories of countless athletes coming out across sports, levels and countries, we have noticed a consistent pattern to their stories and the reaction to them. In honor of the Rainbow Laces campaign, this chronicling of the first 12 hours in the life of a gay Premier League player after he comes out publicly is drawn from our 19 years of experience with this very thing.
Coming out seems so scary to athletes in the closet. But it doesn’t have to be...
6:46 a.m. — You finally get out of bed. You’ve been tossing and turning all night, worried sick about the reaction to your story as a gay athlete being shared around the world. While the lads at your club have known for a while, and your family supports you, you’re still worried about the fans and the media, and if a groundswell of hate will turn people against you.
7 a.m. — After 90 seconds of hitting “refresh” on your phone, the story is finally up, the lead story on Outsports, the site where countless athletes have come out. You worked on the story with the writer for weeks. Now it’s out there. No going back. The clock in your head starts ticking. What’s next...
7:03 a.m. — Your phone buzzes. Buzzes again. A Twitter mention. A Facebook friend request. You see your Instagram followers tick up to just over 15k. Every 20 seconds your phone buzzes again. Soon it’s every 15 seconds. Then every 10 seconds. Then faster. What the hell have I done?
7:26 a.m. — Your phone rings. It’s the captain of the team that sent you packing two seasons ago. You debate answering the call. Finally you hit the little green button and say “hello.” The voice on the other end: “What the hell, man?” He’s pissed. What have I done? Then he continues: “You could have told me. I would have had your back. You know, my brother’s gay. I’ll always love you no matter what. You have my complete support.”
7:44 a.m. — After chatting for a while, you hang up. By now your phone won’t stop buzzing. You click on your Twitter feed to take a peek. The first word you see from a random follower is, in all-caps, CONGRATULATIONS. Phew. As you scroll down you see various messages of support, and some of them coming from people with light-blue check-marks next to their names. Wow people are behind this.
7:58 a.m. — Several minutes into your Twitter responses you come across it. A message you dreaded. “No poofs in football.” You hold your phone in your hand, staring at it. You try to ignore it and keep going. But curiosity gets the best of you. You scroll back and click on his Twitter profile. He’s tweeted 7,642 times to his 38 followers. A nobody. Still, the word “poof” stings.
8:12 a.m. — A little gun-shy, your phone rings. It says “private number.” You’re nervous. Did some hooligan get your number somewhere? You hit the little red button. It can’t be good news. You set your phone down, it still buzzing constantly. You put your jumper over it, trying to quiet the noise while you boil water for tea.
8:21 a.m. — The curiosity gets to you as you sit down with your cup of earl grey. You pick up your phone and notice the caller left a voicemail. You press the button to listen. “Hi this is Harry, the Duke of Sussex.” Christ, it’s Prince Harry. “I just wanted to let you know that Meg and I are so proud of you. If there’s anything you need or any way I can help, I’ve left my office number with your club. So just ask them and they’ll connect us. Just brilliant. Congratulations.” Wow.
8:33 a.m. — You dip into a shower with a little bounce in your step. The window in the bathroom looks out over the street, and you see a photographer standing outside your building. Bloody hell, the paparazzi. No worries, you and your agent planned for that.
8:57 a.m. — Showered and dressed, you put on a pair of sunglasses and head downstairs and out the front door, picking up your still-buzzing phone along the way. There are now two photographers outside your door, instantly snapping away pictures. You smile and duck into the car where your agent is waiting in the back seat.
9:01 a.m. — And you’re off. You look at your phone to see seven missed calls. A friend from your youth. Your sister. A couple of numbers you don’t recognize. Your agent starts running down the media that have, in this short period of time, asked for an interview already. “Barclays rang,” he says. “They want to talk about working with you.” You remind him about the plan. Tomorrow. All outside conversations start tomorrow.
9:34 a.m. — You arrive at the team facility. There are a handful of fans outside near a ticket booth, one of them with a rainbow flag. They don’t notice you, but you stare at them wondering if the rest of the fans are buying or returning their tickets.
9:45 a.m. — Inside the team facility, you go to the team CFO’s office. Your early arrival was pre-planned to get through any conversations about the day ahead. “We’ve had a busy morning around here,” the CFO says. He relays the message from Prince Harry, which you’ve already gotten. And he unloads dozens of phone calls the club has already received from media, sponsors and fans, all of them wanting to know more and how they can be more involved with you and the club. The plan all along has been to stay away from the public for the day. The club has forced all media out of the facility. They will all have to wait.
9:58 a.m. — The head of ticket sales joins the meeting. He had one fan wanting to return his season ticket. And they’ve had 87 calls from people looking to buy season tickets, in addition to a growing number of people showing up at the stadium to do the same.
10:08 a.m. — You look down at your phone again. Over a dozen missed calls. Hundreds of text messages and emails. “Don’t worry about any of that,” your agent says. “Just let it go for now. You can get back to them later.” You put your phone in your pocket.
10:11 a.m. — The club chairman enters, beaming. He’s thrilled with the response. The FA and the club have both released statements of complete support. The club’s head of media relations chimes in that several teammates have also tweeted their full support. You don’t dare ask if there are messages of hate out there. You don’t want to know. You know there wont’ be any media interviews. The FA and Premier League have worked with the club to make sure no media was allowed at the facility that day. You can focus on football.
10:19 a.m. — You head to the locker room. The guys already knew you were gay, you told them weeks ago. But today there are butterflies in your stomach. Now the world knows they will be showering with a gay guy. What’s going to change?
10:24 a.m. — You happen to look down at your phone. Your publicist is calling. You answer. She says Sky Sports wants to interview you at the facility. You say no. “This is the biggest story in all of Europe right now,” she says. “It’s on the front page of every newspaper’s Web site.” You tell her you want to stick to the plan — No media today. You’ll reconsider tomorrow.
10: 27 a.m. — As soon as you get to the locker room, the goalkeeper comes up to you and hugs you. He shows you a series of tweets from his girlfriend, who is blasting one jerk on Twitter who said something stupid. “Good thing you’re gay,” he says, “I think my girlfriend’s in love with you.” You share a laugh over that.
10:31 a.m. — The other guys who are already there give you various forms of congratulations. They loved the story. One of the guys tells you he was really moved by the story, that he actually teared up a bit. He didn’t realize it had been that hard being in the closet. “If I ever said something stupid around you, I’m really sorry,” he says. You share a hug over that.
10:39 a.m. — You notice your one teammate in the corner, not laughing, not smiling, not engaging. He’s not happy.
10:57 a.m. — You head out to the pitch. Some of the guys are already out there. For the next two hours, it’s just football. Nothing’s changed. Everyone warms up, the manager manages, the players run and kick the ball, the goalkeeper dives. Football is still football, no matter who you are. No one acts differently on the pitch. Same-old, same-old. The stands are empty, and you look around wondering what it would feel like if they were full. But that’s not your concern today. It’s still just football.
1:02 p.m. — Walking back inside the facility, you’re struck by how normal practice was. You had sat with the club manager the day before and asked to keep everything as regular as possible. He kept his word. Practice was like any other practice. Routine. It was perfect.
1:11 p.m. — The club’s head of marketing grabs you. The club chairman wants to talk with you this afternoon. You want to hit the weight room after lunch, so you ask if it can be in a couple hours. They’ll make sure that gets arranged.
1:14 p.m. — At lunch the guys are talking about your story. They can’t help it. Their social media is blowing up. Their girlfriends are messaging them. Even in the cocoon of the team facility, social media breaks through on their phones. You ask about the responses. They tell you they’re almost all positive and a couple idiots. “Who’s Russell Tovey?” One of the lads asks. Hmmmm... he’s pretty cute. “His tweet is making the rounds, asking you out on a date.” Maybe, just maybe, this coming-out thing was a really good idea.
1:42 p.m. — You hit the weight room. It’s all business again. But the mention of Russell Tovey has you thinking. You’ve been avoiding your phone for most of the day since you left your flat. Who else is trying to get hold of you?
1:58 p.m. — As you’re spotting your mate, one of your teammates from Eastern Europe enters, glances at you and turns a corner to another part of the room. You ask your workout partner how he’s doing. “He’s still dealing with it,” he says. “You’re probably the first gay guy he ever met. Give him some time and some space. He’ll either come around, or he won’t.”
2:19 p.m. — Your workout mate stops you mid-set. He laughs. “You’re so distracted.” You tell him you’re caught between focusing on the reaction to this news and trying to avoid it. He tells you to hit the showers and go take care of business. Thankfully you and the club planned the story to hit on a long week without a match for a few days. You can afford a few hours of you-time.
2:31 p.m. — You get to your locker and look at your phone. Thirty-two missed calls. Hundreds of text messages and emails. A text from your mum: “Don’t think this gets you out of calling me later. xoxo.” A bunch of really positive messages from former teammates, friends. They draw a smile from you.
2:37 p.m. — You dip into the showers. A couple of teammates are in there, already chatting up a storm. “The gay thing” is now front-and-center for the day for you, and you’re just a little uncomfortable being naked with the guys. They don’t bat an eye. One of them says his agent has called him with three media interview requests. He’s going to do one, just to talk about what a solid lad you are. You tell him you appreciate it.
2:48 p.m. — At your locker you towel off and dress. Same as any other day.
3:05 p.m. — You enter a conference room. The club chairman is there, along with a woman in her 40s he introduces as his secretary. She gives you a hug and immediately tears up. “My son is 16 years old,” she says. “He’s a football player too. He told me this morning that he’s gay, because of your story. You gave him the courage to do that. And I can’t thank you enough.” She tells you he had been acting strange for months, pulling away from the family. Suddenly she feels like she has her son back. The chairman tells you he’s proud of you, and he reiterates his complete support.
3:23 p.m. — As you walk down the corridor, you call your publicist. If Sky Sports still wants to talk to you, you’ll sit down with them. She tells you they’re already at the facility. She told them to go there, just in case you changed your mind. You chuckle. “Well done.” You tell her to call the club and arrange a time and place.
3:58 p.m. — You step onto the pitch, where Sky Sports has already set up lights and a couple chairs. Wow they work fast. The interviewer introduces himself and tells you they’ll be taping the interview to use that night. As the camera rolls, his first question is about the reaction. “I haven’t looked at my phone much,” you say, “so I really don’t know much about it.” He looks at you funny, then says two players from your rival club both have given positive, supportive statements. “How does that feel?” He asks. You reply: “I guess miracles do happen.” He chats with you for about 20 minutes. You talk about the importance of helping other people and showing the world that football is not this mean, horrible place for gay people that so many think it is. To those young gay athletes, it’s possible to just be you.
4:22 p.m. — As you shake hands with the interviewer, a secretary with the club runs up to you. Your agent has been calling and is begging you to call him. You take out your phone. He’s called eight times in the last half hour.
4:27 p.m. — Walking back into the building, you ring your agent. He needs you to come to a meeting with him this evening. “Sorry, I have plans,” you say. He’s not messing around. “Listen, Coca-Cola wants to talk with you. They’ve been looking for someone just like you for a new campaign. This is big bucks.” You pause for a moment. “I’m free tomorrow after 4.” Your agent asks what plans you have that can’t be moved, and you tell him they’re important plans. “If they want me tonight, then they’ll just have to want me tomorrow.” You hang up. Your plans are more important.
4:40 p.m. — You gather your things at your locker. Like it was any other day. You almost want to acknowledge your teammates, but you don’t. They are simply not fazed by this story or the reaction. It hits you in that moment — They are both professionals and friends. They aren’t going to let anything ruin today.
4:54 p.m. — You walk out of the building. Your car will be there at 5 p.m. to get you. Twenty meters away you see about a hundred people and some big cameras standing against the fence. They’re screaming your name and cheering. There are two rainbow flags, another flag of the club. A couple reporters stick their microphones through the fence, hoping to entice you. “I’ll say hello tomorrow,” you yell out. Moans from the crowd rise as you get into the car.
5:02 p.m. — You sit back and take in a few deep breaths. The driver has classical music playing, Mozart you think. You reach into your pocket and take out your phone. You can’t begin to wade through all of the messages and missed calls. You click on your Instagram account. The 15k followers you had this morning has grown to 87k in a few hours. You click on the button to see your tags, and innumerable people have tagged you in images of rainbow flags or screen captures of stories about you from various media outlets. You stick to Instagram, as you know it’s a lot more positive than Twitter. You can’t bear Twitter ruining your mood right now.
5:34 p.m. — Through some nifty maneuvering, the driver has lost the TV truck that was following your car. On the far outskirts of town, you pull up in front of a small Indian restaurant. You see no one on the street, so you get out of the car and head inside. It’s still a bit early, and it’s empty save for a young man at a table for two. You smile. He gets up, smiling as well. “Well that was quite a day,” he says, wrapping his arms around you. The hug would have scared the hell out of you before. Now it feels good. You two sit down and he fills you in on all that he saw that day, the reactions from celebrities and other athletes. “99% of it was really positive,” he says. The other 1%? “Idiots the 99% quickly took care of.”
6:02 p.m. — A straight couple has filed into the restaurant. They sit at a table across the narrow room. Halfway through your chicken tikka, you catch one of them staring at you, and you smile and nod. They do the same.
6:10 p.m. — Your friend teases you about Russell Tovey hitting on you. “You better not,” he says. You assure him that he has your heart, even if Russell grabs your attention from time to time. “He’s pretty cute,” you say.
6:14 p.m. — “I hope you know how much I love you,” you share. The young man smiles. He knows. He asks at what point you’ll be OK with talking about the two of you. You tell him any time. You wanted the first article to focus on the sports and growing up. Now the story can evolve.
6:22 p.m. — By now the people across the room have asked you a couple questions and congratulated you. They are well aware of the meaning of today. You ask if they will take a picture of the two of you. They do.
6:31 p.m. — You post the photo on Instagram, thanking people for the support, and in particular thanking the beautiful man sitting next to you “who has taught me what it is to love.” He smiles, adding, “Boom.”
6:42 p.m. — You ask for the bill, and the server calls over the manager. He explains that dinner is on the house tonight. You insist on paying, but the manager won’t have it. “My granddaughter, she is like you. But her father, he doesn’t like it. What you have done will help.” You shake his hand and thank him for another delicious meal.
6:46 p.m. — You get up and put on your coat, saying that you want to spend the night at your boyfriend’s flat. “I just can’t bear the paparazzi tonight. I’m sure my flat is swarmed.” He says no problem, but he warns you that he’s not sure he’ll be able to keep his hands off of you. Not tonight. You smile. “Deal.”