Professor Ellis Cashmore
A new study led by researchers at Staffordshire University has found that 93 per cent of football fans oppose homophobia and would support openly gay players. The findings contradict the commonly held attitude that openness in this respect is not feasible because of intolerance amongst supporters.
The study, which has been published in The British Journal of Sociology (BJS)
, used an anonymous online survey to gauge the views of 3,500 football supporters, and represents the first empirical investigation of homophobia across fan culture. The vast majority of fans stated that they would support openly gay football players, and that on-pitch performance was their major concern.
The figures are colossal, and that made me scratch my head initially. I started to wonder whether our methods were faulty. After all, it’s an online method and it’s totally experimental. But then, if I’d have used traditional methods and stood outside a football ground asking people to share their opinions concerning homophobia in football, they wouldn’t have given me the time of day. We thought that because our method was totally anonymous, we would really get to the unvarnished truth. We were expecting vitriol and we got exactly the opposite.
Professor Ellis Cashmore
The respondents represented a broad range of football supporters. 83 per cent were male, 2 per cent were below 16 years of age and 52 per cent were aged between 17 and 30. Although 85 per cent of those surveyed supported British teams, the results included responses from 35 different countries.
I spoke to Ellis Cashmore, Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University’s School of Health, to find out why he believes that the lack of openly gay footballers is due to conservative boardrooms and agents…Were you surprised by the overwhelming opposition to homophobia amongst your respondents?
I was astonished, because I thought that there would be an overwhelming anti-gay feeling amongst football fans. I suppose that I had been suckered in to thinking this by people like Max Clifford, who has been outspoken in the fact that he has advised some of his gay clients not to come out. He thinks that football is stuck in the dark-ages. People who represent the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) have also quite openly said that they don’t think football is quite ready for an anti-homophobia campaign. I had been lulled into thinking that this was the case, so the idea of the project was to try to get fans to speak as openly and as frankly as possible via a medium that is totally anonymous and confidential, about what they thought. Why do they think that there are no openly gay footballers?
The results came back and they were so one-sided. 93 per cent of football fans said, ‘We’re not anti-gay. In fact, we are quite the opposite. We’d encourage gay players to come out and we’re embarrassed by the fact that no gay footballers feel confident enough to say outright that they’re gay.’ There are gay players in tennis, golf – every other major sport – and it makes football look bad. The fans wanted us to know that they’re enlightened. They’re not so stupid as to think that every time they watch a game of football, every player on the field is heterosexual. In the opinion of the vast majority, the only thing that matters is whether a player can play football. They don’t care what colour he is or about what his sexual orientation might be. They are only interested in his ability to play the game.
I suspected that in these liberal times, there might have been a shift towards a more open and accepting environment within football, but I did not expect these views to be held by 93 per cent of fans. The figures are colossal, and that made me scratch my head initially. I started to wonder whether our methods were faulty. After all, it’s an online method and it’s totally experimental. But then, if I’d have used traditional methods and stood outside a football ground asking people to share their opinions concerning homophobia in football, they wouldn’t have given me the time of day. We thought that because our method was totally anonymous, we would really get to the unvarnished truth. We were expecting vitriol and we got exactly the opposite.
Let’s put it this way. If I’d have employed traditional methods, I would never have been satisfied that we had really got to the truth. There are so many factors including the kind of macho environment and the kind of aggressive culture that football fans inhabit. Still, I was so surprised by the 93 per cent that I had the study peer reviewed – once by American scholars and twice by British scholars. All of my peers approved of the method. They said, ‘Yes, it’s cutting-edge, but it’s sound.’ I’m quite happy with the method now, and this gives me confidence in the results.Is there a potential problem in the form of club rivalries? Might rival fans target opposition players, despite the fact that they wouldn’t have an issue with one of their own club’s players being gay?
I think you’re exactly right. But then again, this happens week in, week out already. Some of it is said in good humour, but at other times, it appears quite malicious. We took care of this in the study, because we asked the fans to explain why, if they were so welcoming of gay players, it is common to hear homophobic epithets shouted from the stands. This is where it gets a bit tricky, and I think that you need to get into a fan’s logic. Monday to Friday, football fans could be delivering your letters, fixing your car or working on your accounts; they come from all walks of life. However, when they attend football matches, everyday logic is to some extent, suspended. The fans stated that they will use anything they can to gain an advantage for their own team.
Football, unlike any other sport in the world, is one in which the spectator feels an organic part of the game. It is not like other sports where the spectator stands, observes and cheers, but does not really feel that they affect the outcome of a game. Football fans believe that they can do this and that is a genuinely held belief. They really do think that they are putting the opposing players off, and they will use any trick in the book in an attempt to destabilise this player. I say ‘attempt’ because I don’t think that it works. I’ve spoken to and interviewed professional players over the years and they say that they don’t take a blind bit of notice; it doesn’t bother them at all. However, the fans believe that it does
and so they will resort to any tactical manoeuvres – as they see them – to destabilise a player. If they feel that using homophobic taunts is working to their own team’s advantage, they will use them.
As I say, it’s a tortured kind of logic. You can say to a fan, ‘Hang on a minute. You’re using homophobic language and yet you say that you’re not homophobic.’ Their answer – and of course, I’m paraphrasing – is, ‘Just because we use homophobic language, doesn’t mean that we are anti-gay.’ This is what I mean by a fan’s logic.Should gay players take heart from your findings, in that if they were to come out, they would be supported by the fan community?
They would be supported in general. I think that they could expect to receive taunts – sometimes quite barbed taints – every time they play. Then again, they’d expect this in any case. I think that an interesting comparison is Gareth Thomas, the rugby player who came out as gay. He expected a very troublesome time after he came out, and he didn’t get it. He found that fans in general were supportive. There was only one incident in which he said that he really felt threatened; just one incident. I thought that this was quite interesting. It was almost as though rugby fans wanted
to demonstrate just how intelligent and liberal-minded they were. Now, whether football fans would do the same, I don’t know. I’m not going to put my hand on my heart and say, ‘I guarantee a smooth passage for any gay player that chooses to come out.’ It’s none of my business and I’m not making recommendations. I’m a scholar and my job is to report the truth as it appears to me. My feeling is that they would not get as rough a ride as many other commentators and journalists appear to think they would.
Personally, I think that they would be seen as quite an icon in the sense that they would be the first openly gay player in the modern age. Obviously, there was Justin Fashanu but they would be the first in the modern age to take this bold step. Frankly, from a commercial perspective, I think that this would be a fantastic move. I completely disagree with Max Clifford because I think that they would receive so much money from endorsement contracts for various products that their head would be spinning. Again, I don’t know this for sure. It’s not my job to offer advice and I’m not a counsellor.So what, in your opinion, would make boardrooms and agents take notice of these findings?
I don’t think that they will; I think that only evidence will persuade them. That may be a rather negative answer to your question, but it is the only one that I can honestly offer you. There are some crusty old fellows in boardrooms, and some crusty young ones as well, all of whom have these kinds of aged ideas. What will happen is that a gay player will eventually come out, or
as I personally think, will be ‘outed’ by somebody else, and people will hold onto their seats to see what happens next. I think that it will be quite anti-climactic because the player will just get on with the game. When one comes out, other gay players will realise that he isn’t going to be running the gauntlet every week, and I think that we will see a kind of domino effect. I’m guessing that’s what will happen and the fall-out from this won’t be nearly so bad as everybody is anticipating.Could you tell me a bit more about your current research?
Our current research is called ‘Barbaric Britain?’, and it was launched this week. It is based on an argument that is coming from an American source that says that Britain is regressing back to barbarity. The hypothesis states that we’re becoming a less civil society, not a more civil society, in which people are resorting to casual aggression and violence on a habitual basis.
What we want to do is to get people to talk as openly as they feel that they can on this very subject. Is Britain becoming more barbaric? If so, we want to know what people think are the reasons that are causing this to happen? Is it the recession, is it unemployment, is it that people have lost a sense of vision about where they are going in life, or is it that they feel the penalties for casual violence are so pathetic? Have we just become more accustomed to aggression in our everyday lives – whether in supermarkets, at petrol stations or at work? We want to hear what people think about the current state of Britain.And people can get involved with this new project at topfan.co.uk?
They can, and we want everybody to do so because it’s completely anonymous and confidential. They don’t have to leave their name or anything. If they want to, they can leave their email address and we’ll keep them updated on the results of the research, but they don’t have to. We just want to know what they think.Thank you very much for speaking with me…