IN practically every sphere of human activity, being gay is tolerated, accepted, or even embraced. We have gay entertainers, politicians, train drivers and so on; none register more than a shrug. But a gay rugby player elicits a different reaction – especially, it seems, at the Jungle, home of Castleford Tigers.
Here, in March, the openly gay Crusaders RL player Gareth Thomas was subjected to severe homophobic abuse. Last week Castleford were fined 40,000, a hefty sum for a team in a league with a 1.65m per club salary cap.
Since revealing his homosexuality in December 2009, Thomas has been barracked by fans, though he believed the abuse at Castleford was so malicious it made him feel, as he put it, "unsafe".
He probably suspected what was coming: in 1995 Australian rugby league player Ian Roberts became something of a trailblazer when he declared he was gay. After an uncomfortable few months, Roberts' sexual orientation was forgotten. Why? Because he played good rugby. Thomas will do likewise and, in time, he will inspire more gay rugby players – and there are surely hundreds – to take the same steps.
But the Castleford incident raises other questions, such as, why are there no gay footballers? And, what would happen if ever a footballer followed Thomas's example? The omens are not good. In February, the Football Association cancelled plans to launch a video aimed at challenging homophobia in football. The Professional Footballers' Association (PFA, effectively the players' union) distanced itself from the campaign, its president Gordon Taylor explaining: "The Premier League didn't think it was a big enough issue."
He also stated that the time was not right for a campaign of this sort, prompting thoughts about when exactly it will be right. Football is one of the last remaining areas of society where homosexuality remains taboo. In the history of the sport, only one footballer has declared himself to be gay while still a player. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 after a turbulent period playing in the US.
Publicist Max Clifford recently advised gay footballers to disguise their sexuality because football "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia."
Last month we decided to ask fans, players, coaches, and referees whether they thought this was true. Early results from nearly 2,000 participants suggest that 93 per cent oppose homophobia, the residual seven per cent clinging to a more hyper-masculine conception of football as "no place for queers". Sixty per cent wished that gay players would come out and, of the other 40 per cent, most believed that it was a private affair and no one's business but their own. One dominant opinion voiced repeatedly was that the only thing that really matters in sport is how well a competitor plays. As one participant put it: "I'd rather have a gay footballer who can play than a straight one who can't." Football fans are shamed by the homophobic taunting heard from grounds. They don't think it expresses genuine hatred of homosexuality. In their minds, shouting "poof" or stronger epithets at the opposition's players is, as one fan put it, "just a way of getting an advantage for your own team". Another explained: "It is not homophobia. It's just giving them stick."
This hardly absolves them of guilt, of course. Parroting homophobic language is a short step from bigotry. So why hasn't football taken the hard line adopted by the RFL?
"Brand damage," is the answer favoured by fans: they argue plausibly that, as one of the most lucrative sports in the world, football is concerned with its commercial image. Tackling homophobic abuse would be an admission of a problem.
But fans are demanding action: the verbal assaults they hear every week have become an embarrassment and they want the governing powers to take homophobic abuse as seriously as they took the racist abuse that contaminated terraces in the 1980s. Black players could not disguise themselves, of course; gay players can, and do. But why should they? The veil drawn across the issue irks fans. They think a joint effort by the FA, Premier League and PFA would help to create the kind of environment where a gay player would feel inclined to do as Thomas did and, as one fan put it, "be a pioneer."
Perhaps they would still wonder about the loss of endorsement and merchandising revenue, though being publicly known as gay did not hurt the careers of Matt Lucas or Alan Duncan, the Conservative party's first openly gay MP, and now a junior Minister.
Gay players probably want to stay in the closet for a mixture of commercial and personal motives, but the cost may prove too high. As one fan put it: "The longer they wait, the longer the myths will
Rugby League has made its position clear and many football fans approve of the hard line. But the question of culpability remains: are Castleford the guilty party? Maybe the fans themselves should shoulder some blame.
All crowds are, to some extent, self-regulating. If fans hear the kind of badmouthing that will get the club into trouble, perhaps they should remind the homophobes about the implications of their behaviour. Football, like rugby, is a sport that welcomes different players from different cultures. Unlike rugby, it has no living gay players, or referees, with courage enough to take the first step into the unknown. Our anonymous study reveals that there are gay men in professional football, and, perhaps surprisingly, they find colleagues supportive. But none is prepared to disclose their sexuality in a context of uncertainty.
The truth is there have always been gay players, who, for perfectly understandable reasons, have concealed their sexual preferences. Now, the sporting landscape has changed.
Football and, to a lesser extent, rugby must address the challenge posed by a clash of modern conventions against the traditions of the venerated games.
Anyone interested can air their thoughts and opinions anonymously at www.topfan.co.uk
Ellis Cashmore is professor of culture, media and sport and Jamie Cleland a senior lecturer in sociology at Staffordshire University.