Whenever a major professional sports team in the U.S. announces a Pride Night, the backlash is predictable. Inevitably, numerous keyboard warriors take to social media to fire back at the concept of openness with complaints like “stick to sports” and “rubbing it in our faces” and “where’s the straight pride night?” It’s so hackneyed and played out, you can practically lip sync for your life to the bigotry.
Now a new article in The Athletic by editor in chief Alex Kay-Jelski makes it abundantly clear once and for all exactly why Pride celebrations are necessary and how they can change the sports world for the better. To commemorate the start of the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign, Kay-Jelski collected quotes about the LGBTQ community from a number of prominent soccer players and the sheer volume of support is a bit awe inspiring.
Editor’s note: Kay-Jelski’s piece is behind a paywall, and requires a subscription to read. It’s important to note that Kay-Jelski starts his story with a reflection that runs counter to Outsports’ long-standing slogan, “Courage Is Contagious,” and our experience that the vast majority of pro athletes know LGBTQ people, support LGBTQ people, and would be fine with a gay teammate.
“This was meant to be a slightly defeatist piece... that a big part of the reason why so many LGBT football fans — including me — felt uncomfortable at matches was because players and managers were burying their heads in the sand, too lazy to speak out against homophobia.”
As it turns out, Kay-Jelski encountered so many Premier League players who were willing to go on the record with their support of LGBTQ fans that his outlook did a 180. Simply put, in Kay-Jelski’s story, the Premier League comes across as a sport full of Sean Doolittles.
The most eloquent and heartfelt sentiment is expressed by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and it’s worth printing at length:
“This campaign is important if there are still supporters out there who don’t feel they can be themselves or, even worse, have to hide who they are for fear of getting abuse or being discriminated against. I’m a parent, a husband, a son, and a brother and the idea that anyone I love and care about wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable coming to watch me play if they were part of the LGBT community makes me wonder what world we live in.
“Maybe as players we’re too insulated from it because I honestly don’t see why anyone would have a problem or feel motivated to say anything that makes someone feel unwelcome. As long as even one supporter questions whether they are welcome or can enjoy football because of their sexuality, the campaign is important. It sends the message: you are welcome, we are on your side, and the small-minded idiots who make you feel uncomfortable have no place in football. Simple as that.
“In this day and age that anyone would make another person feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because of their sexuality is mind-blowing. I can’t get my head round it. I’d like to think that at [Liverpool home stadium] Anfield that isn’t the case but then I don’t sit in the stands so I can’t claim to be an authority. Here’s what I can say: on behalf of the players, I want to make it clear that everyone is welcome at Anfield. Whether that’s in the stands, on the field, or in the dressing room, this is a place for everyone and it’s up to all of us--players and supporters alike--to get that message across as powerfully and as often as we can.”
Simply put, that is as impressive as an athlete’s message of inclusion gets. This isn’t well-rehearsed PR-speak or a couple of marketing department-approved soundbites — this is Henderson speaking from the heart about his beliefs. And he deserves all the credit in the world for this profound and moving expression of welcome.
Prominent figures including players all over the Premier League expressed similar sentiments, including Manchester City captain David Silva, Everton goalkeeper Jonas Lossl, and Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier. They are just a few of the many big names offering similarly uplifting messages for their LGBTQ fans.
And that sense of welcome goes for everyone in the community. Bournemouth defender Steve Cook related the story of team photographer Sophie Cook, who came out as trans a few years ago: “I remember her coming onto the pitch and being reintroduced. I’ve read her interviews since and she wasn’t sure how everyone was going to respond, but for us, it was normal. We were happy for her that she was able to lead the life that she wanted.”
That’s exemplary. These players know that they’re public figures in one of the most popular sports leagues on the planet. And if this is how they demonstrate acceptance of a trans co-worker, they also know that they’re using their influence in the best possible way.
Other influencers like Jon Holmes and Stonewall UK applauded everyone taking part in #RainbowLacesDay Wednesday.
Wearing my ❤️ on my sleeve for #RainbowLacesDay! Great to see the hashtags so busy today - well done everyone for taking part @SportsMediaLGBT @SkySports @lifeatsky @stonewalluk #RainbowLaces #lifeatsky #TeamPride— Jon Holmes (@jonboy79) November 27, 2019
Thanks to everyone who wore their #RainbowLaces today. You've all played your part to make sport everyone's game. But it doesn't end here. Find out how you can support your LGBT teammates the rest of the year: https://t.co/LMcvJaleQl #RainbowLacesDay pic.twitter.com/DsFQLTDQgl— Stonewall (@stonewalluk) November 27, 2019
To be sure, the overall theme being presented to readers of The Athletic is that the soccer world has a long way to go to make LGBTQ players and fans feel completely comfortable in the sport. As Kay-Jelski writes, “football is still a hostile, uneasy environment for LGBT people — it’s one of the few places in London I wouldn’t hold my husband’s hand or dream of taking my kids in a few years time...” But as he also makes clear, he now believes that thanks to efforts like Rainbow Laces, the sport is making tangible progress.
As evidence for this, we have the perspective of Watford striker Andre Gray, who was suspended four games by the league in 2016 for tweeting that gays made him sick and should die. Reflecting on that period in his life, Gray told The Athletic, “I was an ignorant young teenager and a product of my environment, and thankfully, football took me away from those sorts of situations and that mindset. I’ve experienced a lot since and grown a lot, and learned from my mistakes.”
Gray went on to assert “Wearing the laces does represent a lot but at the same time, I think the whole team needs to do it — not just one or two.”
That right there is why it’s vital for the Premier League to hold an annual Rainbow Laces campaign and why it’s important for teams in all sports across the U.S. to hold Pride Nights. It’s because they work. And while everyone would admit that it is just one small part of a long journey toward true equality, there’s ample evidence that Rainbow Laces is making a positive difference for LGBTQ fans.