Rainbow Laces and beyond: English football is an uncomfortable environment in need of a hero

(Image courtesy of the Premier League)

In light of public support for Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, why has the Premier League still not had its first active, openly gay player?

In recent weeks, colour has taken over the Premier League. At grounds across the country, English football’s biggest stage has shone the light on and embraced the rainbow of an important cause. But, it is a rainbow coloured by hope and a cause in increasing need of a trailblazer. As the Premier League’s illuminative support for LGBT equality charity Stonewall and its Rainbow Laces campaign draws to a close for 2019, it begs the question: Why has the Premier League still not had its first openly gay player? 

Every season, the Premier League conducts a campaign to raise awareness, acceptance and highlight Stonewall’s good work. The annual activation of the campaign — first launched in 2012 — was highlighted over two match rounds, from December 3 to December 9. Stonewall celebrated its 30th birthday earlier this year; its aims are clear: “Challenge anti-LGBT language. Celebrate LGBT people in sport. Share your story.”

And yet, at the highest level, there are far too many negative stories as opposed to positive ones with regards to football’s interaction with the LGBT community. As recently as last week, in the lead-up the first round of games in this year’s campaign, West Ham fans were accused of homophobic chanting during their victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bride. An all too familiar story. Just a week later, the same tale at Goodison Park. The Premier League can, at least for a short time each season, bring the cause firmly into focus for all, with an emphasis on a show of support for all LGBT people in football and beyond.

Over the period in which the campaign was activated in 2019-20, all of the fixtures featured Rainbow Laces matchday equipment, including pitch flags, ball plinths and boards. Rainbow-coloured captain’s armbands and the laces themselves were also available to players to create an inclusive feel-good factor for all involved.

This was certainly the case at Brighton on Sunday as the Seagulls hosted Wolves. Considered the UK’s LGBT capital, the seaside town embraced the cause. However, speaking after the game, pundit Graeme Souness voiced his concerns about English football’s worrying disassociation from the LGBT community. As it stands, there are no active, openly gay or bisexual players in the country’s top four divisions.

“The PFA and Premier League have to look at themselves,” Souness said on SkySports.

“Why has no one ever come out? I think football has not created an environment where anyone would feel comfortable and confident if they did.”

The former Liverpool and Scotland captain continued, “There must be gay and bisexual players playing in the Premier League but nobody has felt confident enough to come out and say ‘this is me.’”

When asked if he thought it may be to do with the pressure being too much as being the first active player to come out, Souness was defiant.

“Yeah, but what a hero you would be…It has to come from that individual to say ‘look, enough’s enough, I want to be true to myself and true to my family,’” the ex-Liverpool and Scotland captain added.

Souness spoke as a pundit for Sky Sports during their coverage of Brighton against Wolves in the Premier League on Sunday. The seaside town proudly holds the reputation of being the UK’s LGBTQ capital, and the Amex Stadium was a sea of colour to highlight the Premier League’s support of Stonewall’s campaign. (Image courtesy of @AndyNaylorBHAFC on Twitter).

It sounds simple, but it must be easier said than done or we wouldn’t still be in this position in 2019. The issue is but another indicator that Premier League football is behind the times, and because it is — specifically with disturbing incidents of homophobia still common occurrences — it isn’t hard to see how a player could be dissuaded from revealing their sexuality.

Players are likely unwilling to be the first to come out while they are still playing out of a fear of reception. In 2014, former Aston Villa and West Ham midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first openly gay player to have featured in the Premier League, but no active player has done so.

Back then, Hitzlsperger cited the importance of “furthering the debate about homesexuality among sports professionals.” To date, former Norwich City forward Justin Fashanu remains the only player to have openly come out as gay while still playing football in England. According to Stonewall’s Sports Campaign Manager Jehmeil Lemonius, the “witch-hunt” focus on having an openly gay player hinders people’s confidence to speak out. It is about perception.

What’s more, the problem links to an ongoing struggle with discrimination in the contemporary game. If black players are still subjected to racism and fans are still chanting ignorant, homophobic slurs, how would the first openly gay player be treated? The fear factor shouldn’t be there but is so because of the long line of discriminatory incidents plaguing what is supposed to be an all-inclusive sport. As the Premier League’s slogan bears, “This is everyone’s game.”

The majority share Souness’s view in hope that someone can find the confidence and set a precedent going forward. For those that don’t, education is key.

“I came from a generation where it was extremely homophobic, the banter in the dressing room,” Souness said.

“Nine months ago I came down and took part in the Brighton Pride and it was enlightening. I learnt so much…I found it extremely educational and I would tell anyone to come here if they want to learn more. They will go away with a completely different opinion.”

But perceptions have changed since his Souness’s time in the dressing room in the 70s and 80s, and while there may be a minority of ignorant fans deterring players to take the brave step, the support of players should a fellow professional come out is abundantly clear.

Speaking before their game against Aston Villa at the weekend, Leicester and England’s Ben Chilwell and James Maddison told SkySports that their dressing room would be a welcoming space for any teammate who wanted to come out as gay. The pair interviewed Graeme Smith, Paul Malley and Michelle Keatman from Foxes Pride — Leicester’s LGBT supporters’ group — and were unanimous in their view on a player potentially coming out in the future.

“If you look back 30 years ago, dressing rooms were a lot more ruthless,” Chilwell said. “But ours now is completely open to anything. We’ve got different countries together, different religions and different races.

“Everyone is so together at Leicester, and I know that’s the same with other clubs…If there was someone who wanted to come out as gay, that’s completely fine.”

Maddison echoed his companion’s thoughts.

“We’ve got a very accepting changing room, and I think if one of our team-mates was to come out and say they were gay, nothing changes,” Maddison said.

“That’s how it is with us, and hopefully going forward that can be the same for everyone.”

As for management, Brighton’s boss Graeme Potter was forthright in his support prior to the campaign’s commencement.

“For me personally, and for the club, it’s essential we make the game as open and as welcoming for everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic, and initiatives such as this are brilliant, and colourful Rainbow Laces campaign are an excellent way of reminding us all that we are not all the same,” Potter said.

And yet, in a sense we are all the same in relation to this game. We are bound by a love for football. Going forward, the Premier League and the wider footballing community require a brave hero to break the mould. If a high-profile, active player can show a level of vulnerability and immense courage in coming out, it would open doors for others to do so. More importantly, though, it would empower young men and women across the country to not separate their personality from their passion from the game we love. After all, this is everyone’s game.

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