More than a decade ago, in a conversation with an agent, the individual involved spoke longingly about the idea of a homosexual Premier League footballer. “The first high-profile openly gay player will make so much money,” he said. “I’d like to get my hands on some of those pink pounds.”
The words came to mind this week for a number of reasons. Carl Nassib, the Las Vegas Raiders defensive end, became the first active NFL player to come out. The 28-year-old’s jersey immediately became the best-selling shirt in the league. At least in the short term, the commodification of Nassib’s sexuality proved as lucrative as the aforementioned agent imagined.
Another event put LGBT+ issues in the news. Uefarefused to allow Munich’s Allianz Arena to be lit in the rainbow colours of the pride flag for the match between Germany and Hungary. Viktor Orban’s right-wing government this month passed a law that bans any depiction or what it terms “promotion” of homosexuality to under-18s in Hungary. There are two things disturbing about this. It is the latest step in Budapest’s policy of curbing LGBT+ rights; and the new laws were last-minute amendments to a bill concerned with greater punishments for paedophiles. This is no accident. The clear agenda is to place sexual minorities in Hungary in the same category as those who abuse minors. The speaker of the Hungarian parliament has publicly compared same-sex adoption rights to paedophilia.
Uefa said that it is “a politically and religiously neutral organisation”. On Sunday, Netherlands played Czech Republic in Budapest, a Euro 2020 round of 16 tie hosted by what is increasingly seen as a rogue state. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said that Hungary “has no business being in the European Union any more”.
Nothing can stop the festival of football. And Hungary got another chance to promote itself on the world stage.
Uefa pretends it cares while turning a blind eye. In a statement it said it was “proud to wear the colours of the rainbow”. The carefully crafted words of the press release are superficially stirring: “It is a symbol that embodies our core values, promoting everything that we believe in – a more just and egalitarian society, tolerant of everyone, regardless of their background, belief, gender or sexual orientation.”
Yet not only does European football’s ruling body sit by while a country marginalises a section of its society, it refuses to sanction even the mildest criticism of the rancid regime and repeats the callow excuse that politics should be kept out of sport.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr came to the conclusion that the biggest barrier to civil rights in the United States was not the visible bigots but the white moderates. Their mantra was, Dr King wrote: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”
Uefa has failed on matters of race and inclusivity because of this mealy-mouthed approach. By stopping the Munich authorities expressing their support for communities being increasingly vilified in Hungary, European football’s ruling body showed, again to quote Dr King, that, “[It] prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.
Like it or not, sports in general – and football in particular – are at the front line of the modern culture wars. Few other industries are as diverse and the role of players in taking the knee has kept racial discrimination high on the news agenda. But this has been a movement driven by the players with very little direction from those at the top.
The paralysis of leadership in football was on display again this week. Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, can nod sagely and say that homophobia will not be tolerated but there is too much posturing and too little real action. Gay men and women are often invisible in dressing rooms and crowds and can be ignored. Racial minorities generally stand out because of their colour; the likes of Nassib need to come out.
In almost every team there are those who are nervous about being open about their true sexuality. It has always been that way. Many of Nassib’s colleagues will have known about him for a long time and most will have accepted who he is. Stories about Premier League players’ preferences abound. At one club there were two gay teammates. Everyone knew about them (and, no, they were never in a relationship). The rest of the squad really liked one of them but had little time for the other. Friendships were built on personality rather than sexuality.
The stone-age attitudes that players like Justin Fashanu had to endure have largely faded – at least inside clubs. Outside it is not so easy. Who would come out when Uefa will not even make the smallest of gestures to help de-stigmatise completely standard human feelings and emotions?
It is sad that Nassib needs to be brave. The defensive end position is one of the most ferocious in American football. Only a fool would question his masculinity. The Raiders historically pride themselves on signing players who are considered oddballs or misfits. Nassib is neither but his team will embrace his individuality – as long as he performs on the field.
The fear for every gay sportsperson is that once they come out they will be defined by their sexuality and not their achievements. There will always be people around – like the ‘pink pound’ agent – who are only concerned with the profits they can milk out of groundbreaking and fearless athletes. Ruling bodies should be better than that. They have a responsibility to protect players and fans.
Uefa failed in that duty and backed away from doing the right thing. The suspicion is that the organisation only really flies a rainbow flag when there’s a few quid in it.
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