Stonewalling Equality

Clubs opt out of campaign to tackle the homophobia which continues to blight British football
How high up the priority list for football clubs was the 'rainbow laces' campaign?
How high up the priority list for football clubs was the ‘rainbow laces’ campaign?

Once there was a gay rights charity, an Irish bookie of ‘reputation,’ and a national cast of footballers…or so the joke may kick off in folklore down the pub someday. Which risks the question, from Elgin to Exeter, did British football clubs really give two hoots over the rainbows in their players’ boots?

Puns and jest aside, the core values behind what could have and should have been the most earnest yet of campaigns against homophobia in our national sport became all too lost in the tos and fros of a dubious slogan, weaved smatterings of ‘if only it weren’t for associated third-party commercial entities,’ and general myopic point-scoring; to the extent that no one would be surprised if the Daily Mail had risibly monikered the drive, Lacegate.

No doubt Stonewall and Paddy Power’s algorithms could have done with a bit of fine tuning with hindsight. Bookmaker Paddy Power is as discreet as a drunk tramp dragging a 3-day old corpse through a dinner party the way it goes about its guerrilla marketing. In many ways it’s fair to question why Stonewall got in cahoots with such shameless self-publicity.

One of Paddy Power's more subtle billboard innuendos
One of Paddy Power’s more subtle billboard innuendos

Among gay rights campaigners the feeling being threaded out in the somewhat anti-climax of the Stone-Power, Paddy-Wall — call it what you will — alliance is that the only loser was the campaign itself. Only the tabloids were onto a win-win situation regardless.

Had Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard stepped onto the pitch with their rainbow laces tied twice round the undercarriage of their boots, the red tops would have splashed their sport’s pages with thinly veiled assumptions about the sport’s two most virile of men.

As it was, Rooney, Lampard and the vast majority of their professional colleagues goose-stepped into inaction at the demand of their club’s executives. As a result, the campaign filled column inches due to the non-wearing of the laces.

Only Everton supported the campaign 100%, on account of their partnership with the bookmaker. Newcastle United’s manager, Alan Pardew, and a few English Premier League players were given the choice of whether to show support, while Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker did his tweeting best to rally exposure.

Yet the whole campaign, just a few days after, finds itself in a curious state of void. Stonewall’s Head of Policy, Sam Dick made attempts to upbeat the fallout of the campaign when he said: “There is a debate about whether this was to everyone’s taste, but actually it’s captured the attention of thousands, tens of thousands of fans and players.”

Though click onto the news releases of any of the 20 Barclays Premier League clubs, and what you’ll find is that not one of them, since the weekend, has issued plans to become involved in creating concrete campaigns against homophobia, either internally or in conjunction with second or third parties. It’s the subject which blatantly pales into insignificance, down the rung and well behind fourth quarter financial reports and ticket advertising.

Yet no surprise football’s irreverence?

Just weeks after leaving Leeds United, Robbie Rogers announced his retirement from football and became only the second player in English football to reveal his sexuality, and the first since Justin Fashanu in 1990, his retirement a means to escape the inevitable “circus” he expected would arise from spectators and the media.

After a change of heart and now playing for LA Galaxy, Rogers in an interview in June with Sky News said: “I think that the football culture in England, in the UK, is a bit still behind. It’s a bit more homophobic and a bit more racist than it is here (in the USA). I don’t know why that is.”

Robbie Rogers: only the second professional footballer to come out in the UK
Robbie Rogers: only the second professional footballer to come out in the UK

It’s a travesty that football, as this nation’s most-watched sport, wasn’t able to look itself in its shifty eye and ask what attitudes and experiences did Rogers endure to force him away from his beloved profession in this country.

Rogers may have had other issues or non-homophobic problems to seek near the end of his time at Leeds, though the fact he has found a solace of acceptance in Major League Soccer — the US equivalent to the Premier League — surely says more about us than it does American sports culture.

The lack of reassurance from the dressing room to the stands for gay or bi-sexual players to be open about their sexuality without prejudice isn’t just fixed within the top echelons of football in the UK.

From grassroots to pub teams; from the Conference leagues up to the second tier Championship league, don’t drop your soap in the shower, backs to the wall lads jokes are about as cool as someone trying to say clever things after inhaling a helium balloon. Yet embarrassingly, such quips still do the rounds on fan forums.

Saltire Thistle FC is a Glasgow based LGBT-friendly football team who welcome anyone over the age of 18 regardless of sexual orientation. On their club website, manager Stephen Hendry recently spoke of their support of the rainbow laces campaign.

He said: “Someone’s sexuality should not define them, and if a gay person wants to play football, they should be able to do so without hiding who they are.” There’s a sentiment in those words which equality campaigners would love a line of professional clubs to espouse tomorrow. Indeed the sooner they do the sooner there will be no requisite for gay-friendly clubs to exist.

To think how a black-friendly, a Japanese-friendly, or a big turban-wearing Hindu dude-friendly club would be deemed a social outrage, and yet the underlying reasons for the need for gay-friendly clubs does not raise alarm is quite a reflection of where we’re at with the issue.

Regardless of all the negative press whipped up from the rainbow laces campaign, let’s hope, if little else, last week’s exposure is the point of no return for all football clubs to stand up and make steps, no matter how small.

It is far too important an issue for football to bat down the rung of its own prominences. And for any who question why, just point them in the direction of Justin Fashanu’s family.

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