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Is speculation about gay footballers helpful?

There are no openly gay or bi players at any level of male professional football in Britain. It’s a surprising fact, considering that there are thousands of professional footballers in Britain.

It’s a sign of the culture in sport – not just at an elite level, but right the way through to grass roots.

Independent research has shown that a significant minority of sports fans and players think that homophobic language is acceptable in sport, especially if it’s just meant as banter. Those views are most prevalent among young sports fans, those who go to live games (and we’re not just talking about football here – every sport), and those who play sport themselves.

When we’ve spoken to fans in more detail we see that fans think this language is acceptable because they don’t see lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in sport – as fans, as players, working at a senior level in clubs, leagues and governing bodies. 

It’s clear from recent stories in the press, speculation about players coming out is also acceptable.

Every six months or so a story explodes about players who are allegedly on the cusp of coming out. This isn’t helpful, and it doesn’t help create an environment which will make it comfortable for players to come out. In fact, it makes it harder. 

It ramps up the expectation and pressure. It puts all the onus on any players who are gay or bi to come out – to change attitudes and the culture themselves.

The frenzy of speculation about who those players may be, who they’re talking to, and when it might happen will only increase players’ fear about how they would be treated as an openly gay or bi professional footballer.

Stonewall works with thousands of employers, schools and institutions, focusing on creating organisational cultures that allow everyone to be themselves and flourish.

From our experience, we have learned that allies – people who are not LGBT themselves, but make it their business to visibly support LGBT people – are crucial to changing those cultures.

Rather than speculating about players coming out, let’s focus on the players, fans, clubs, leagues and governing bodies who’re coming out as allies.

This is what our Rainbow Laces campaign is about. We can change the culture in sport by stepping up and showing that we value LGBT fans and players as part of the sports community.

To make it easier for players to come out, we all need to show our support – from associations to clubs, from referees to fans – and we need to show this not just once a year, but over and over.

We also need to continue calling out homophobia whenever and wherever we see it, whether it comes from footballers themselves - like former Leeds United star Noel Whelan, who just last week posted a homophobic tweet - or fellow fans. 

Sport should be everyone’s game, and everyone is responsible for making that happen, not a handful of players who may or may not be about to come out.