University researchers are conducting a study on the attitudes of football fans towards out gay players.

Staffordshire University is launching the self-selecting online survey this week and a small pilot study has found positive attitudes to homosexuality.

The pilot study of 250 fans found that four-fifths were relaxed about the presence of gay footballers in the English leagues and would welcome more honesty from players about their sexuality.

Researchers now want to widen the study and it is being distributed to online fan forums.

Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport, said initial findings indicate that fans believe that as many as one in ten professional players are in the closet.

“Fans are surprisingly blasé about this,” he said. “What irks them is the lack of honesty: no fan believes every player is heterosexual.”

Only one high-level footballer has ever come out. Justin Fashanu revealed he was gay in 1990. He committed suicide eight years later.

Last year, PR guru Max Clifford told PinkNews.co.uk he was representing gay and bisexual footballers but had advised them to stay in the closet to avoid ruining their careers.

A Stonewall survey found fans believed homophobia was rife in the sport and in February, the Football Association cancelled the launch of an anti-homophobia campaign.

The chief of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gordon Taylor, said football was not yet ready for out gay players.

But Prof Cashmore said Mr Taylor was “out of touch” and that fans were “more educated and enlightened” than Mr Clifford gave them credit for.

He added: “Fans understand that, as in any sport, football has many gay players, yet it remains one of the last remaining areas of society where homosexuality remains taboo: there are cultural customs restricting open discussion on homosexuality.

Co-researcher Dr Jamie Cleland suggested that if more players were aware of fans’ positive attitudes, they were more likely to come out.

He said: “Fans encourage footballers to come out. As one fan put it, ‘someone needs to do something heroic, and step forward before it [homophobia] can become a thing of the past’.”

To participate in the survey, visit www.topfan.co.uk