By Nick Harris
10 August 2010
Researchers at Staffordshire University studying the extent to which homophobia is common within football have found that two-thirds of fans believe the environment surrounding the game will be liberal enough to allow a gay pro to come out “over the next two to five years”.
At one level this remains damning: there are prominent gay men and women in most walks of life, including sport. Gareth Thomas from the world of rugby set an example as “one person finally having the courage to do” a respondent to the research said.
At another level, the research maybe gives a tentative sign that attitudes are changing, although anecdotal evidence from within football suggests the game is still homophobic, and the reality of no openly gay footballer in Britain since Justin Fashanu backs that up.
The two-thirds finding in the study to date – and it is ongoing and open to the public at http://www.topfan.co.uk – is one of the findings of the world’s first major research project into attitudes towards homosexuality in the beautiful game, conducted by Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland, of Staffs Uni.
More than 3,000 participants offered their views online as to why football is one of the few major sports in which gay players do not feel free to talk about their sexual orientation.
“Nearly a quarter of players, managers, coaches and refs personally know gay professional players,” said Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport. “But only a third think they would face abuse from other players. Over three-quarters anticipate the player would get abuse from fans.”
But Cleland, senior lecturer in sociology, pointed out: “An overwhelming majority of fans (93 per cent) insist there is no place for homophobia in football and that recent characterizations of the game as “stuck in the dark ages” are wide of the mark.
Max Clifford recently revealed that he had advised gay footballers not to come because football is “steeped in homophobia.”
The notion of football steeped in homophobia is contradicted by the survey, the researchers say.
“There is firm agreement that the effects of the first player to come out will be to encourage other players to follow the example, though there is some disagreement over the cause,” say the academics. “While many think a player will be emboldened to make a stand, as rugby player Thomas did, others suspect the media will forcibly ‘out’ him.
“Some believe this will limit his commercial opportunities, or brand value, while others think the label of ‘only gay footballer’ will itself provide new and lucrative possibilities, the researchers believe.”
The researchers say that “slightly less than 10 per cent” of their sample expressed “hostility” to homosexuality. “As is often the case, a minority can convey an powerful but unrepresentative image,” Cleland said.
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