Efforts to kick homophobia out of football will go nowhere if players and fans don’t have the balls to stand up to the bigots, Adrian Tippetts argues.

At last, the world of sport is beginning to acknowledge that homophobia is a problem, that it needs to be dealt with, and to a much lesser extent, that there are also gay, lesbian, bi and trans people who actually play sport. Kick It Out, the Football Association’s pressure group dedicated to kicking out all forms of bigotry in the game, is even making a video to be broadcast at all stadiums to tell fans that homophobia is wrong.

Very well, this is all good news; I doff my cap. However, we have yet to see participation in any anti-homophobia initiative from the people who really could help change attitudes most of all: the players who fans look up to as role models. The only one to make such statements so far has been David James. What is the bigger problem, the minority who spew hatred, or the majority’s reaction to it?

An example of this problem arose last Wednesday, when Burnley defender Clarke Carlisle gave an in depth interview to the Lancashire Telegraph about tackling prejudice. It’s a well-timed piece of PR, as football’s ‘One Game, One Community’ week, celebrating diversity, kicks off. In the lengthy interview, he says all the things we want to hear on welcoming the ethic minorities and the disabled. So far, so good. He certainly comes across as a thoughtful, well-meaning person, and I believe it when we are told he takes his role as seriously off the pitch as on it. However, on the question, ‘will we see an openly gay player in the game?’ this all evaporates:

“I think that’s not just football, but that is generally in sport and it’s a reflection of the nation as we stand. I think there is a massive stigma about homosexuality and this is why the coming out process is such a traumatic experience. When you transpose that into a sports environment, it’s very alpha-male dominated, so you don’t want to show any signs of weakness. It was a monumental effort for me to hold my hands up to say I had a problem with alcohol back in the day because it was exposing a vulnerability to others. So coming out as a homosexual sportsman can be viewed negatively so people don’t want to do that.”

This comment is useless and wrong on so many counts. Of course, there is a massive problem. But that ignores the many signs of hope. Ever more people being open about their sexuality, with friends, family and work colleagues, helped greatly by public role models. Even in sport, things are moving in the right direction. Match officials are being trained to penalise anything like the Le Saux-Fowler incident from being repeated. Clubs are training the stewards and the police to identify abusive chanting before it spreads out of control across the stand. Aston Villa has even launched its own gay supporters’ group.

Gay football and rugby teams have been set up around the country, some playing in local leagues, and some even have straight players happily joining too. The flood of support for Ireland’s top hurling star, Dónal Og Cusack, after he publicly came out, shows that when we put our minds to it, overcoming homophobic prejudice can be done.

There really is no excuse sweeping the issue under the carpet in 2009. Science has answered the question about homosexuality, telling us decades ago what common sense told us since the origin of our species: it’s a natural, neutral state. The laws of science and common sense apply in exactly the same way wherever you are, whether it’s in Soho or at the Turf Moor stadium. All of us have the same brains and reasoning capabilities. Anyone can change their opinions about homosexuality in an instant, when they look at the evidence.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing when someone compares being gay, which does not negatively affect playing ability or team unity, with alcoholism, which most certainly does. So, what coherent reason is there, Mr Carlisle, for anyone to perceive homosexuality as a ‘weakness’?

It’s a shame therefore, that Mr Carlisle can’t simply say, there’s no need for homophobia, and that it’s not acceptable. Is that too much to show even a grain of solidarity with the one group of football fans and players who actually need it most? Or is the changing room paranoia of his ‘alpha male’ team-mates so great that doing so would lead to ostracism?

For all the good work being done, football is still a haven for bigotry. Just look through internet discussion forums to find pockets of hysterical hatred against gay people going unchecked.

The worst example was observed after Steven Gately’s death. On a thread dedicated to this on Westhamonline.net, it was like September 12th at an al-Qaeda hide-out, with a handful of members hardly able to hide their joy, including a jubilant, ‘Mr Polite’ gleefully looking forward to the extermination of more homosexuals. Just a tiny number of forum members were responsible. But only one had the courage to express disgust. The website operators eventually locked the thread, and only deleted the comments after being told to by Kick It Out. No public apology has been issued. The question, left hanging in the air, like the ashes from a concentration camp crematorium, is this: what expression of violence or hatred is necessary, before people stand up and be counted?

There are such people as guilty bystanders, when we let others get away with unspeakable injustice against others. Have these ‘alpha males’, who Mr Carlisle claims dominate football, no balls to show leadership and stand up to this tiny, thuggish minority? I never knew cowardice was such a noble value.

Challenging ideas of masculinity begins and ends with two simple questions: would any self-important, preening, prima donna footballer care to claim himself more of a man than, for instance, James Wharton, the openly gay trooper featured on the cover of July 2009’s Soldier Magazine? Who risks the most in their respective fields of combat? Seriously, Mr Carlisle, give yourself and your colleagues a break.

A few top-flight footballers, who stand firmly with everyone, would mean the most to those LGBT folks in the amateur leagues. For amid the salad of commitments to zero-tolerance from various head offices, it was a commentator on a Blackpool FC supporters’ discussion forum who appreciated the nature of the problem most of all:

‘…My Sunday League team has two gay lads playing for us, one of whom has been our player of the season for the last two years and was offered a contract at a Conference North club a couple of years ago. He said he turned it down because he wanted to be himself and knew as soon as he revealed he was gay that there would be some bigot who’d have a pop if anything went wrong during a game…’

Dr Martin Luther King once told us that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. But it was Barack Obama who put these words into their true perspective, at the 40th anniversary memorial of the great man’s assassination:

“It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”

While the hopes and dreams of young talent are being wrecked, ordinary fans will have to do what so-called role models won’t, at grass roots level. I don’t think football players and fans are all that backward. I’m pinning a small rainbow flag to my football shirt. I’ll wear it every time I go to Hillsborough. In this way, My club will be proud to see it really does represent all sectors of the community. I invite all other fans to make this simple gesture.