A fan supports gay athletes in soccer. | Ink Drop

“For the first time in Germany! Gay football professionals plan group coming out.’”

This was the headline that ran on the website of BILD, Germany’s most popular tabloid newspaper, back in November 2023.

Suddenly this week, a version of the same story has gone viral, amplified by English-language social media accounts with millions of followers, resulting in a frenzy of gossipy comments.

So what’s happened to kick it all off? And what does it tell us about the challenge still facing gay and bi athletes in men’s pro sports?

Print circulations in Western media may be in decline, but the spirit of traditional “tabloid journalism” — characterized by its often sensationalist take on the news — is alive and well.

It’s more than five months since BILD ran that article but it started a ripple in Germany that has been steadily building ever since. In the last 24 hours, the story has crashed like a wave through British media too.

At the center of it all is Marcus Urban, a former East German youth international soccer player who came out publicly in 2007.

He was speaking to BILD to launch a campaign called “Sports Free,” which he is orchestrating through his non-profit organization, Diversero.

The primary aim of the initiative is a group “coming out” moment for athletes. Urban told the newspaper that in men’s professional soccer, those players exist, and that he could help to liberate them.

“Even now, I only have contact with the players through informants,” he said at the time. “It’s crazy how much fear there is. The men are worried that there will be speculation about their sexual orientation directly in the media and clubs.”

Urban’s quotes were picked up elsewhere in German media. The following month, he spoke about the campaign to two more websites in his homeland, even setting a target date of May 17 as a window of opportunity for those keen to go public.

Outsports reported on the story, noting how similar claims made in the past about male pro athletes coming out together as a group in soccer and the NFL had never come to fruition.

There is also a crowdfunder component to “Sports Free” and several Bundesliga clubs have been announced as having pledged to support the project financially. Some of the money is set to go towards production costs for a documentary film.

That has led to skepticism in some quarters but Urban appears undeterred. He has said that “in the end, it is a question of organization” — suggesting an event that is both positive and empowering might yet happen in mid-May.

That was before this week, though. Now Urban must cope with the very same “speculation” he himself had warned about, back when he spoke to BILD.

Rules of engagement

On Saturday, German digital network RND reported on “Sports Free” in a new in-depth feature. The article summarized the story of the campaign so far, with fresh quotes from Urban, and it was also published across the network’s regional websites.

“May 17th is an offer,” Urban told RND, “a date that you could use as a guide and get together as a group.” He claimed that momentum had built in the first few months of 2024 and that “people’s minds are starting to move” as the targeted coming-out day gets closer. 

This Friday will mark three weeks to go until May 17, which was selected because it is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It’s also the weekend for the final round of regular-season fixtures in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga.2.

It took a couple of days, but the RND feature appears to have first found its way into British media reporting on Tuesday afternoon via SPORTbible, whose article linked out to the website of Peiner Allgemeine Zeitung, one of over 20 sites in the RND network.

SPORTbible has significant social media reach, such as on its Facebook page which has 13 million followers. Their post for the “Sports Free” story was captioned: “An important step which will see several footballers come out on the same day.”

By Wednesday morning, the story was also running on three more popular UK news websites — Daily Mail Online, JOE.co.uk and Metro.co.uk. The Mail Online incorrectly credited “Preussische Allgemeine Zeitung” — which is not part of the RND network — as the source of the new report.

Meanwhile, other social media accounts with big followings also carried news of the group coming-out. On X, major engagement around posts can now be profitable following changes made last year by Elon Musk that rewards premium blue-tick accounts. 

On the DeadlineDayLive account, the related post with a rainbow corner flag has 2.5 million views at the time of writing. Only posts relating to news of the arrests of two unnamed Premier League players had received more views on the account in the previous 24 hours.

In replies and comments on these posts, some users openly speculated on which players they thought were gay, often using homophobic tropes. There were also several examples of anti-gay slurs.

Emojis and emotions

Cagliari midfielder Jakub Jankto is currently the only footballer playing in a major men’s pro league in Europe who is out as gay.

Jankto came out publicly in February 2023 and signed for the Italian Serie A club five months later. He has made 20 first-team appearances this season.

In new research released this week about hate speech in Italian football, analysts from data digital firm The Fool looked at reactions on Facebook to articles published about Jankto that referenced the player’s sexuality.

The research study by Italian data firm The Fool is titled ‘Combating Hate Speech in Football’ | The Fool

The results found that the majority of the reactions were negative, with 40% using the laughing face emoji and 15% the angry face emoji. On the SPORTbible Facebook post Tuesday about the group of footballers coming out, those two emojis were also the most used.

Happily, Jankto has said in interviews given over the course of the last year that he has no regrets about coming out publicly, even if he did do so somewhat reluctantly.

But the study should serve as a reminder that coming out still requires considerable courage, not least in men’s pro football where only six players anywhere in the world who are out as gay are currently active.

The “Sports Free” project is an attempt to share the weight of pressure collectively. If there are several players who are on the verge of emulating Jankto — and that the “organization” of their joint announcements is the key to unlocking their closets, as Urban claims — that impending moment could yet live up to its liberating potential.

But with speculation now swirling on social platforms and increasing scrutiny from media based both inside and outside Germany, there is already an intense sense of expectation about May 17.

As Urban told BILD back in November, fear can be a “crazy” emotion. Just when you think you have it under control, it can return to unsettle you once more.

And if we’ve learned anything from tabloid journalism down the years, it’s that coming out is an act that can be exploited as well as celebrated. The algorithms that drive social media cater to the same audience.

Having fed the media beast to build up its appetite, “Sports Free” now finds itself at the mercy of sensationalism. Planning this kind of event in public is a perilous enterprise.