Bear with us a moment while we delve into the world of rugby, and the news that former Wales captain Gareth Thomas has come out as gay. On one hand, this has little to do with football. On the other, Thomas is a rarity, a high-profile sportsman still playing the game in a sport not generally noted for its positive attitude to homosexuality. And when you then follow this up with Max Clifford’s claim that he’s advised two leading footballers to hide their sexuality, then it’s clear football is still some way behind rugby in attitudes.
For non-rugby fans unfamiliar with Thomas, a bit of context: The Bridgend-born fullback, known a Alfie, has been one of Wales’ most iconic players of the last decade. He captained Wales to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2005, won 100 caps for his country, and scored 41 international tries, including one for the British & Irish Lions. When Brian O’Driscoll was injured on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, Thomas assumed the captaincy.
Alfie, then, is one of the great players in the modern game, a leader on the pitch capable of rallying his team when under pressure. If you’re looking for a comparative player in football, John Terry immediately springs to mind.
That 35-year-old Thomas has achieved so much in his career and is gay is completely irrelevant. His sexuality has nothing to do with his performances on the pitch. It would, or rather should, be easy to say this whole issue is something of a non-story and there is little point in adding to the column inches.
Yet, it is also worth discussing because it says so much about modern sport, especially the ultra-macho environments of rugby and, yes, football.
Thomas kept his sexuality under wraps so nearly 20 years because he was afraid of the effect it may have had on his career. He was terrified as to what his team mates would think and contemplated suicide. That says plenty about the attitudes, still, of modern sport.
Yet if you look on comments given in the press and comments on articles online, the reaction has been unanimously positive. Rugby fans do not care about Thomas’ sexuality, but applaud him for coming out.
Would the same thing happen if a high-profile footballer came out? Clifford claims that football is awash with homophobia, the stalling of the FA’s anti-homophobia campaign and the casual terrace chants of “Get up you poof,” and others suggest this is unlikely (see this earlier Pitch Invasion piece on Stonewall’s report on homophobia in football).
And any gay footballer – and there are undoubtedly some – will no doubt have the experience of the late Justin Fashanu in the back of their minds. Fashanu remains the only footballer to come out, and suffered as a consequence.
He was ostracised by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest in 1981 after Clough discovered the striker had been frequenting gay clubs. When Fashanu came out in an interview to The Sun in 1990, his own brother denounced him in The Voice magazine as an outcast (although he subsequently apologised).
After his outing, the tabloids released a steady stream of ‘sex’ stories, and he was seen as fair game by the press. Torquay United were one of the few clubs willing to give the striker a chance, and he rewarded them with 15 goals in 41 games.
Yet Fashanu was a complex character with plenty of inner-turmoil. After accusations, later dropped, of abusing a 17-year-old boy in the States, he returned to England and hung himself in a South London lockup in 1998.
Times have changed since Fashanu’s outing in 1990 and his death eight years later. Britain has high-profile, and well loved, gay singers, actors, TV presenters, politicians and more. Yet sport, and especially football, is still the one area where homosexuality is still taboo.
Clifford is probably right when he posits that, for a player to come out and be accepted in football, he would most likely have to be a uncompromising player on the pitch, successful, and coming to the end of his career, much like Thomas. But it seems unlikely any time soon.
Gay charity Stonewall have done plenty of work both at grassroots and top level, although significant problems still remain. David Beckham has also done much to take the macho sting out of football by happily acknowledging his gay icon status. But these are very small chips off a large rock. Dressing room politics and casual homophobia on the terraces remain major hurdles, not to mention sponsorship deals and the huge media attention it would receive.
On coming out, Gareth Thomas said that he didn’t want to be known as “that gay rugby player”. He won’t be: rather he’s recognised as a great rugby player who happened to be gay. Perhaps he’ll inspire other players across the whole sporting spectrum, including football. But, with the latter, don’t expect this any time soon.