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Thomas Hitzlsperger’s recent revelation to a newspaper in his native county of Germany that he is openly gay has once again opened up the debate regarding homosexuality in sport just weeks after another high profile sportsman, Tom Daley did the same.
Despite Hitzlsperger’s admission coming after he has retired from professional football due to re-occurring injuries, it still nevertheless represents a huge step for the sport. As the only player to ever play in the Premier League and come out as openly gay, Hitzlsperger is the biggest name in football to “come out” in over 20 years. Could this then be the start of removing one of football’s biggest issues?
With over 50 caps for Germany and being a member of Stuttgart’s Bundesliga title winning side, “The Hammer” is certainly the most successful footballer to take this brave step, but even he thinks it will be a long time before players can be accepted as gay whilst still playing.
The last high profile case came courtesy of the late Justin Fashanu, who came out whilst still playing in 1990. Fashanu was a big name striker in England already, having the title as the first black million pound player, which meant his revelation sent shockwaves through a very narrow minded sport. Fashanu’s story was a tragic one, committing suicide following allegations in America regarding a 17 year old boy and with that, football fell silent once again.
It is difficult to say if the tragic story of Justin Fashanu had an adverse effect on homosexuality in football, but it was certainly a huge milestone. Fashanu was derided not only by fellow professionals, managers and fans but even by his family and brother John.
Other sports slowly but surely seem to be breaking down the walls of homophobia, as seen with Gareth Thomas in Rugby and the public team backing that the English Cricket team gave to Steve Davies when he came out. Football however, has been for so long the place where no openly gay sportsman dare tread, until now anyway.
Former Leeds player Robbie Rodgers announced his retirement and homosexuality almost simultaneously in 2013, giving an example of a footballer who despite being just 25, felt it too much to be openly gay and a professional footballer. This decision has been reversed however and Rodgers now is the highest profile footballer to be out and still playing, plying his trade for LA Galaxy in the United States.
So if Rodgers can do it, why can’t other players do it? An interesting theme amongst the reactions to Hitzlsperger and Daley’s recent public admissions was one of bemusement. Many people felt it to be a non-story and were annoyed by the hype surrounding the sportsmen’s sexualities.
Why should it even matter?
Well it shouldn’t, but that’s entirely missing the point. These cases should be publicised, talked about and discussed until the day when such is the social norm that being gay and a sportsmen is entirely irrelevant. The fact is, until we get regular cases where sportsmen can be open about their sexuality without being abused or it affecting their career then the issue will continue to arrive. Daley’s huge media presence in this country gave a massive boost to this, and more need to follow suit of coming out during their career.
A lot of sportsmen and women will disagree for one reason or another, whether it be on grounds of religion, opinion or simply geographic circumstance. Many sportsman have continued to encourage their gay peers to keep their homosexuality under wraps for their own sake and the sake of their careers.
This opinion has a lot of valid points, why should sportsmen risk their careers so it’s easier for the next one to come out? Especially in team sports where being part of a group is so important, the potential risk surely far outweighs the good on a personal level? Truthfully, that’s entirely down to the individual, as simple as that.
That being said, only by sportsmen publicly admitting their acceptance for equality within sport can we fight the issues we face. Only by players supporting their fellow professionals, teams respecting each other on terms of ability alone and public debate being sparked, can we finally start to break down barriers. Then, and only then will sport no longer care one tiny bit about sexuality, it will be all about the competition.
Ironically then, the only way for homosexuality in sport to cease being an issue, is to make it an issue.