Jake Daniels came out publicly on Monday, becoming the latest professional soccer player to come out in the men’s game.
For two decades, Justin Fashanu had stood as the only active player to come out in his sport of football. Yet over the last decade we’ve seen Robbie Rogers, Collin Martin, Josh Cavallo and now Daniels follow suit.
There have certainly been more than five gay men in the sport between their respective countries of the United States, Australia and England. Yet because of how we’ve talked about homophobia in sports — and in particular men’s professional sports — others have believed they would be rejected by their sport if they came out.
In reality, the reaction from people across the media and social media to Daniel’s announcement this week has reflected the widespread support that gay athletes coming out actually face today, both in men’s and women’s sports. Stars of the sport, powerful institutions in the game and world leaders have expressed full support for Daniels, as they did for Cavallo, Martin and Rogers before him.
Yet we still talk about gay athletes in the same way we did in the 1990s. Namely, they risk everything — career, family, money — by coming out.
“For a long time I’ve thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be, and now I am, a professional footballer,” Daniels said in his interview with Sky Sports.
He got that impression from us. He got it from the shadowy tabloid stories of fear, from athletes saying they think gay athletes would be rejected, from dopey chants by drunk fans.
Our society has advanced the idea that gay athletes coming out in football, soccer, or whatever you call the sport, risk losing their career or endorsements. It’s false and completely misses the reality today of Western culture and what it means to be a professional athlete.
Instead, it’s more likely that these gay men coming out in pro sports will make more money, and will be more coveted by corporations looking to embrace values of courage and diversity.
It took a 17-year-old to cut through the fearmongering promoted by people in sports who, frankly, have no idea what they’re talking about.
Is it possible that an opposing fan will call Daniels a gay slur? Absolutely. Frankly, they probably already do as they use those slurs to attack gay and straight athletes.
Might some opponent sneak in a dig at him during a match when the referees are outside earshot? I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen, as the trash talking on the pitch can be brutal.
Twitter users with single-digit followers will say stupid things, some of them already weighing in, often from thousands of miles away in Africa and the Middle East, where LGBTQ acceptance levels and legal equality are decades behind the West.
And yes, even outside of sports, any out LGBTQ person risks being the target of a crazy person on the street.
Yet underlying all of that is both deep and widespread support for Daniels from his teammates, his family, his friends, his sponsor adidas, the media, as well as fans of from both Blackpool and their rivals. The people in sports — the ones who matter the most — widely embrace gay teammates, friends and family members when they come out.
Outsports has run the coming out stories of hundreds and hundreds of athletes. In the last 20 years , almost every single one of them follows the same pattern: 1) They were afraid to come out to their teammates and to the public; 2) When they did it, they were shocked by the level of support; and 3) Their only regret is they didn’t do it sooner.
Outsports and the University of Winchester ran a study of out LGBTQ athletes in North America last year — with a 1,000 responses — and the findings were powerful. Even of the respondents in the “big five” men’s sports — football, baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey — over 92% said their teammates’ responses to them coming out were “neutral” at worst (that number was 95% across genders and sports).
When professional athletes come out publicly, like Daniels did, there is a part of me that gets angry. Because every time they come out, they do so to a world waiting for them with open arms.
Yet we keep telling these gay athletes to be afraid, to stay silent, to not take a “risk” or be a “distraction.”
We at Outsports fully stopped talking about coming out in sports in this way years ago. Because we’ve seen the stories of people who have actually come out, we’ve talked to straight athletes who’ve had a gay teammate come out, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find gay athletes coming out who had an overall negative experience.
In the professional leagues in the United States, England and Australia, it’s frankly unthinkable that an athlete coming out publicly in 2022 would face overall rejection from his teammates, his team, the fans or the media.
Our messaging around this — in the media, on social media and in casual conversations — has to get out of the 1990s and enter 2022.
Sports are founded on teamwork and inclusion, and that includes gay athletes, even at the highest levels of English football.