When an athlete gets elected to their sport’s hall of fame posthumously, it always feels bittersweet and is usually accompanied by remarks like, “It’s a shame this couldn’t be done while he was alive to enjoy it.”
That particular sentiment is especially poignant and also extremely complicated in the case of the late British soccer star Justin Fashanu, who will be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame today in Manchester, England.
Fashanu is mostly remembered for becoming Great Britain’s first (and still only) male professional soccer player to come out as gay while still active in the sport, doing so in an interview with English tabloid The Sun in October of 1990. However, his sexuality was known within the game for most of his career.
His recognition by the Hall of Fame is evidence that the sport wants to recognize his role as a barrier breaker for the LGBTQ community in a league that has a longstanding problem with homophobia in many forms.
In addition to his status as a trailblazer, Fashanu was most well-known for two other significant achievements on and off the pitch. In 1980, his lightning quick strike from the top of the box for Norwich City against Liverpool was named Goal of the Season by the BBC. Fashanu’s goal became one of the most legendary moments in the history of Norwich City and this month, the club’s fans (including LGBTQ supporters group Proud Canaries) unveiled a giant banner commemorating its 40th anniversary.
A year after winning that award, Fashanu broke another barrier by becoming Britain’s first black soccer player to command a £1 million transfer fee when he signed with Nottingham Forest. He was able to draw such a fee thanks to 35 goals over the span of four years with Norwich City.
However, what should have been a celebratory moment eventually marked the beginning of the downfall of his career. While with Nottingham Forest, Fashanu played for a head coach named Brian Clough who repeatedly attacked him over his sexuality. As Clough wrote in his autobiography, he took perverse pride in dressing Fashanu down with phrases like “Why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”
That was typical of the homophobia Fashanu faced as his sexuality became more and more of an open secret throughout his soccer career. He finally came out publicly in 1990 in an article that The Sun spiced up with lurid tales of a sexual tryst with a Conservative MP.
From there, Fashanu continued playing soccer while numerous scandals followed him off the pitch. While coaching late in his career here in the U.S., in Maryland, he was accused of sexual assault by a 17 year old. Shortly afterward, Fashanu fled to London and committed suicide. He was 37.
Justin Fashanu led a messy and complicated existence that ended tragically. And he was accused of a monstrous act just before he took his own life. But he was also an LGBTQ athlete who was brave enough to tell his story publicly while he was an active player—at a time where doing so was extremely difficult.
It’s that aspect of his story that the National Football Museum has chosen to honor by inducting him into the Hall of Fame. Fashanu will be represented by his niece Amal, the head of The Justin Fashanu Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting inclusion both inside and outside the world of soccer.
In the wake of the Hall of Fame news, Amal Fashanu reflected on her uncle’s legacy to the BBC:
“I don’t understand, even today, how Justin did it—he’s one of the bravest men I’ve ever come across. You’ve got a black man who is gay and religious, all in one, and you can add it all up and it sounds like a recipe for disaster because it was a very different time.
“The fact that Justin just got up and said, ‘This is who I am, I’m going to respect myself and get others to respect me for who I am,’ that is one of the most impressive things. And for him, as my uncle, I couldn’t think of anything more honorable and I look to it every day.”
The Hall of Fame will be honoring that part of Justin Fashanu’s legacy. But the museum also owes it to history to tell his story in its entirety.