Tackling From Behind – How Gay is Football?

It’s happening in slow-motion: a man pirouetting elegantly through the air, mouth open in a rictus of emotion, heavily-muscled thighs glinting in the day’s last light, long hair unfurling from the confines of a loosened pony-tail, the faintest of touches – a merest brush of the tackle – from an aroused antagonist seeming to slam him face down into the cool, dark earth.  Oddly enough, it’s Saturday evening: you are not watching an all-male ballet or a piece of experimental Dutch filmmaking, but Chelsea against Newcastle on Match of the Day.

So just how gay has football now become?  The question carries with it no longer just the tang of playground insult – who is gayer than whom – but serious sociological implications.  As a society, we may be witnessing the emasculation, or at least de-masculisation, of football; the solid myth of working-class, macho sportsmen disintegrating into an unsightly lather of feigned injuries and screaming histrionics, male-modelling and fashion-designing, an England Captain who feels so right in a sarong.  Such tendencies suggest a move away from previous norms for an athletic ideal, which has been previously synonymous – at least in modern times – with rugged heterosexuality.     

What is notable is that such a shift in perceptions appears unlikely to be taken to a logical conclusion: if we no longer expect our athletes to be stereotypically heterosexual – hard players on and off the field – surely we would have no problems with some of them actually being homosexual?  The answer to that should be yes, but seems to be no.  The recent allegations about gay footballers were considered newsworthy enough to make a tabloid splash, even without the inclusion of such basic information as their identity.  And they were taken seriously enough to prompt legal action despite the same glaring omission.  Saying someone is gay is not itself libellous – it is the claim about misleading the public, or one’s partner, that carries the legal sting – but one can certainly speculate whether there would have been a libel writ, or even an anonymous story to begin with, had the allegations revolved around heterosexual horseplay in the same circumstances.

So for some reason it does matter, then, the sexual preference of people we only see kicking a ball on a Saturday afternoon (or Wednesday evening or Sunday lunchtime, or whenever: traditional match times being another casualty of the modern game, but let’s not get started on that one).  Without doubt, we would care if we felt that, say, Cissé was a sissy (and more so than about allegations that he has committed the robustly heterosexual act of beating his pregnant wife).  But why?

We could try to look to other sports for answers.  In America, there have been only two outwardly gay men in NFL history.  Two factors leap out as responsible for this: the prevalence of conservative Christianity; and an adherence to an orthodox athletic ideal, which states that real men don’t fuck men.  This is one NFL coach, tackling the subject from the latter position (note the shiver of awkwardness in his use of euphemism): “you try to sell your team on being a rough, tough hard-nosed football team and I would assume if that person was of that persuasion, I am not sure of the quality of his toughness”.   This is an ESPN subscriber, coming at it with a more theological bent: “it is definitely a sign that apocalypse is upon us. It’s not right.  It’s never been right…That may be homophobic but I’m an American”.

'And despite there always having been more than a bit of bugger in the game of rugger there have been no prominent gay rugby players either'

Neither argument bears up in terms of a British response to homosexual athletes.  Ours is an essentially secular society, which tolerates plenty of commandment-breaches in our athletes (adultery, stealing, not keeping the Sabbath holy) outside of – as it were – coveting another man’s ass.  Furthermore, as we have seen, the macho world of American Football does not embody the same physical ideals as the more effeminate British version.  Plus, if toughness and homosexuality were irreconcilable, we would not have the example of Ian Roberts, the Australian rugby league player who came out in 1995 and continued to play the sport to great acclaim, and little opprobrium, for the next three years. 

Of course, Ian Roberts has not really paved the way for acceptably-out athletes in Australia.  The fact remains that there have been no prominent gay British footballers since the tragic case of Justin Fashanu in 1988.  And despite there always having been more than a bit of bugger in the game of rugger – since the first bandy-legged public schoolboy picked up a football, on a fagging errand (no doubt) for a larger pupil – there have been no prominent gay rugby players either.  If between five and ten percent of society is gay (translating to two men in each squad and coaching staff at a football game) then there should surely have been more mould-breakers in professional sport.  Why, we might reasonably ask, has the progressive liberalisation of society in terms of sexuality not crossed over into the sporting arena?  

'Sport, like roughhousing, becomes a vehicle for acceptable close interaction between males'

One (unpopular) answer may be that a reason straight men are attracted to sport is precisely for its ambivalent homoeroticism, which is to say for its suppression – which is also a necessary acknowledgement – of homosexuality.  The anthropologist and historian Johan Huizinger, in a book charting the basic human need for competition and sport, came up with the term ‘homo ludens’ (‘Game-playing Man’) to describe it, but did not stop to consider just how ‘homo’ that creation was.   In sport, male spectators enjoy the proximity of men together in a physical but outwardly non-sexual environment, as a safe outlet for inner feelings that would otherwise have to be forcibly repressed.  Sport, like roughhousing, becomes a vehicle for acceptable close interaction between males: think of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – who dreams of his butch rival Aufidius (“we have been down together in my sleep / Unbuckling helms and fisting each other’s throats”) before waking up next to his wife – but in shorts.  That may be why male fans are so reluctant for the love that dare not speak its name to become more than an occasional, slanderous chant on the terraces.  To acknowledge any more would be to give the game away entirely.  It might also be why women can never be genuine football supporters.

In that context, the preening world of football – now more metrosexual than heterosexual – might be considered JGE (just gay enough) for the safe play of unspoken wish-fulfilment to continue.  For the same reason, it may be unable to go further, to welcome a true diversity of sexuality and to treat gay players as neither exceptional or exceptionable.  It goes without saying that, if it did, the benefits would be enormous: the societal statement that a person’s private desires need not impact on their public role; the acceptance of a once-repressed minority into a stratum of the genuine mainstream, and so on.  And how about the celebrity pulling power of a same-sex couple comprising two sporting mega-heroes (consider Beckham coupled with Rooney. Literally).  Obviously, there is the additional plus-point of finally having an England player who is a proficient left-footer.  But that’s probably taking us back to the playground again.

Why don’t more sportsmen come out of the closet?