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British tabloids need to stop their faceless gay fear-mongering in sports

With the latest ‘anonymous Premier League player,’ some British tabloids keep causing more problems than they solve.

The tabloids in London, and particularly The Sun, have developed a reputation of sharing shadowy stories about gay athletes, the likes of which spread fear and misinformation.
Corbis via Getty Images

It seems every 12 to 18 months a story bursts onto the scene in the U.K. making claims about gay athletes in the Premier League.

To recap some of the lowlights:

Enter the latest chapter of rumour-milling, a letter this week, allegedly written by a closeted gay Premier League player and furnished to The Sun by Fashanu (again) that spells out doom and gloom for gay athletes.

Amongst all of this, over the last five years you can sprinkle in a healthy dose of straight people from The FA chief Greg Clarke to front-office execs, managers and players, proclaiming the Premier League unsafe for gay athletes (though recently some of the tone-setting has shifted to more positivity and inclusion).

Every one of these headlines, “leaks” and speculation is sadly misguided, self-serving and does not help the cause of LGBTQ athletes. In fact, each one of them hurts.

I understand the temptation to jump on every headline-grabbing doom-and-gloom opportunity. We used to do that at Outsports, before our shift to focus on the stories of real out athletes. The stories that can help people.

Still, frustration grows in the U.K. over the lack of publicly out male athletes. While in the United States we have now hundreds of publicly out university-level athletes and coaches, and we’ve had several active athletes come out in American men’s pro sports, the U.K. doesn’t have the same sports structure. Frankly, they also haven’t had an Outsports focusing exclusively on telling those stories.

With poor fan behavior, proclamations of “homophobia,” and rumours and speculation getting most of the press, it’s no wonder the dearth of out athletes continues there.

A big part of the problem is that these regular “closeted athlete afraid to come out” stories invariably over-emphasize the pre-coming-out fear. Every single person who’s come out as LGBTQ has faced the fear of people’s reactions. Every. Single. One.

It’s not remotely news that an athlete may be afraid to come out. Everyone already understands this. Various organizations are already working to combat it.

Yet the post-coming-out reaction from people in sports in the U.K. and North America is almost always far better than the pre-coming-out fear warranted. Whether it’s been professional athletes, or athletes in high school or university-level sports, no matter what the sport, every athlete I’ve spoken to has shared virtually the same story:

1) They were scared to come out,

2) after they came out they were shocked by the overwhelming support, and

3) they only wish they’d come out sooner.

There are a couple groups of people who continue to benefit from, and make money through, publishing rumours, innuendo and anonymous stories of fear in sports. The more convinced everyone is that sports is an unwelcoming place for all LGBTQ people, the more money organizations like Fashanu’s — allegedly designed to combat homophobia — can raise.

Of course, the outlet publishing the story gets clicks and ad revenue.

Who doesn’t benefit from this? The LGBTQ community. Fearful closeted athletes. They don’t benefit from these stories in any way. Zero.

As I’ve written before, a gay Premier League player coming out will have so much more support than he can possibly realize. Yes there will be the dopes in the stands who will say some crap, but they say it already. More and more, they are being fined and banned from stadiums.

And if an opponent says something? The gay athlete can do what others have done: Use it as motivation, or report it to the officials.

Interestingly Haigh, who speculated three years ago about 20 gay Premier League players, understands a lot of this. He’s talked about the difficulties in the closet, but having come out himself at the highest levels of sport, he has seen the wide-spread acceptance that is present today.

Coming out, Haigh personally understands, changes the game for the gay athlete individually, as well as the sport overall.

Others in English soccer who have also reported widespread support include referee Ryan Atkin, semi-pro player Liam Davis, club front office exec Hugo Scheckter and Jay Lemonius at The FA.

At the end of the day, this is the rub. Continuing to build the narrative around shadowy speculation and anonymous accounts of fear and hatred tell only the first half of the story.

If Fashanu and media outlets like The Sun are truly interested in shedding light on the current environment of sports, they will find athletes and others in sports who have actually come out, and they will share those experiences. That’s been the best work we’ve done at Outsports.

I have been thrilled to see some U.K. journalists giving LGBTQ people in sport a platform to share their stories more widely, with much of this work highlighted by the network and advocacy group Sports Media LGBT+.

When athletes come out, they are widely accepted. I don’t know of a single university-level-or-higher athlete who has come out and been largely rejected by players, coaches, fans and the media in the last five years. I don’t know a single one.

It’s time the U.K. media focuses more on these stories, and stops with the faceless fear-mongering.