PinkNews Exclusive. Former England defender Graeme Le Saux says it’s wrong to assume an openly gay premiership footballer would face the same amount of homophobic abuse as the late Justin Fashanu.
“The FA would handle the situation very differently now”, Le Saux exclusively told PinkNews.co.uk last week at Wembley Stadium for the screening of Next Goal Wins.
The documentary is about the real life story of the American Samoa national football team, featuring the world’s first openly transgender professional player, Jaiyah Saelua.
Le Saux, who played for Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers, Southampton and England, before retiring in 2005, faced many years of homophobic abuse despite not being gay.
The most notorious incident involved an on-pitch gesture from former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler when Le Saux was playing for Chelsea in 1999.
Since retiring, the 45-year-old has helped with the Football Association’s campaign against homophobia and transphobia.
The FA has often received a bad press, but Le Saux believes the organisation is making progress in tackling homophobic abuse, whether it’s on the pitch among players or from fans.
“From my point of view, we’ve been moving in the right direction for a while now,” Le Saux told PinkNews.co.uk. “There are a lot of good things in place here in the FA, and being in the governing body of English football, you need to lead from the top.”
Le Saux disagrees with the view expressed by many commentators that as a sport football is ‘not ready’ to accept an openly gay premiership player.
“Society has changed so much and football is realising that the people who watch the game and who play the game are going to be normal members of modern day society,” Le Saux said to PinkNews.co.uk.
“So I feel that we are more accepting and films like Next Goal Wins are a great example of how other cultures and societies deal with people that are perceived in our society as maybe being different – and accepting people’s differences is an important and valuable way of really finding out what characters, what skills, what abilities people have.”
Le Saux also believes it’s wrong for commentators to use the story of Justin Fashanu as a reason why gay footballers should not come out.
Britain’s only English footballer to come out and continue playing killed himself in 1998.
But Le Saux said the tragic case of one individual should not dominate the debate in 2014.
He told PinkNews.co.uk: “It’s a bit like me saying, with what I went through, with some of the abuse I got, that if a gay player came out they would suffer the same abuse as me, they wouldn’t. I know they wouldn’t. Just from the point of view that the FA would handle the situation very differently now, because they’re more geared up to deal with [homophobia], than when I was playing.
“We are in a totally different environment, I completely accept that there are still lots of areas we need to work on, and it’s a continual programme of work. It takes everybody to really bind to the ‘Football for Everyone’ agenda. But without a doubt, the environment is very different now to when I was playing, and certainly when Justin was playing.”
The FA last year launched a mobile app allowing players and fans to report racist or homophobic abuse. Le Saux said it would help the authorities to monitor and tackle the incidents.
“There’s a new reporting app called ‘Kick it out’ and that’s the most important aspect of any discrimination, is that it’s reported, so that the FA can do something about it.”
Le Saux continued: “Obviously, education is a hugely important part of preventing younger people from learning bad habits and prejudice.”
Acknowledging that many equality campaigners perceived the FA to have been slow at tackling homophobia, Le Saux said: “When good things happen it’s easy for those to get lost by the press and media because they’re not always stories that generate the biggest interest.
“But I certainly wouldn’t be so supportive of what the FA are doing and what football is doing if I didn’t believe we were going in the right direction, and that’s a point of principle for me.”
Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters’ Club – who are used to facing a disproportionate amount of homophobic abuse from rival fans – criticised the programme for not showing how in many cases the situation has gone from “whole sections” of fans shouting taunts to now “very small numbers.”
Le Saux is adamant that a gay footballer who went public about his sexual orientation would get the strong support of his team and club fans.
The former England international points to Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender member of the American Samoa national team who was fully embraced by her teammates. In Next Goal Wins she is shown to be one of the team’s strongest players.
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“When you watch the film you see the fact that there’s no difference between people that have different genders and a different way of life off the pitch”, Le Saux added it’s about “breaking down those barriers, and those preconceptions and those prejudices.
“It’s about supporting people, as the FA has done tonight, supporting the film, and continually revisiting and reminding and working on making that environment totally inclusive.”
Le Saux agrees with last month’s comments of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who said: “The value of a player is considered just through his attitude and his performances.”
The ex-Chelsea defender believes many gay footballers choose to keep their sexual orientation private in order to avoid the added attention of being in the media spotlight.
Le Saux said: “I think Thomas Hitzlsperger was a great example of someone who felt it was better for him not to come out whilst he was playing because he didn’t feel that he could focus on being the best footballer he could be with the added attention.”
He continued: “The extent of any sort of, not pressure, but interest I suppose that his story would have generated when he was still playing. I think, from my point of view, you have to accept people’s wishes, and if they want to keep parts of their private life private, I think that’s to be respected.
“But equally, creating an environment where players feel that they can succeed and be the best footballer they can be, despite any differences they may have with their colleagues. I think that’s the important point, and that is something we’ve got to strive for.”
Le Saux added: “And if players fell that they want to talk about their private lives and come out while they’re still playing, then so be it. But that certainly would never be a priority for me, and something I don’t need to see in order to realise that we’re successful in dealing with discrimination.”