Martin O’Neill was making headlines last week. During a send-off event for the Republic of Ireland team ahead of the Euros, he joked that he had to make sure that staff accompanied him and Roy Keane to the Super Bowl in America earlier this year, to prevent people from thinking that they were “queers”.
This entire incident is particularly disappointing, especially as the comments came from O’Neill. While I would never claim to be an avid football fan, I grew up in a family of Celtic supporters and lived through the O’Neill heyday, so I can understand his cult like status among many in Scotland. As much as I don’t feel that it is constructive to continually castigate the man, as he has apologised, I do think that it is about time that we start talking about homophobia within football, and the effect that such throwaway statements can have.
Because, as a gay man who came close to a suicide attempt in my youth precisely because of the climate of exclusion that such derogatory language creates for those of us who identify as LGBTI, I know about the impact that our words can have on others and the importance of using them carefully. O’Neill is an incredibly intelligent individual who should have known better than to use identity – my identity – as a joke, or a slur.
Let’s think about what he inferred: that being in a same sex relationship is something to be embarrassed about, or something to be concealed. He didn’t want people to think that he and Keane were “queers” – but why? His comments were laced with negative connotations, regardless of the intent, and not only has he potentially sent a message to young fans that it’s alright to joke about “queers”, but this is yet another case which highlights a live problem within football.
Of course, it is all too easy to brush this episode off as a mistaken slip of the tongue or the jovial comments of a man with a misguided sense of humour, and many commentators have tried to do this. I have seen the phrase “witch-hunt” peddled; those defending O’Neill have claimed that this is a classic example of a “politically correct world gone mad” – that his apology should suffice and, so, we should “all move on”. After all, it’s the Euros, and – surely – there are more important things to be discussing in the sports columns this week, right?
On the contrary, I’d suggest that we should view this incident as a timely conversation starter. It is no secret that there is an observable culture of silence regarding sexual or gender identity within football; while we are now, thankfully, seeing an upsurge in openly gay athletes in other sporting fields – in Britain, there are still currently no openly gay players in “the beautiful game”.
Where – at least on the surface – society has taken leaps ahead in the quest for LGBTI equality and basic rights, it certainly appears that an anti-gay culture remains a particular taboo within the game. Indeed, former Celtic defender Paul Elliott has been expressly vocal about this, arguing that he personally knew of twelve professionals who were privately gay, but feared coming out due to the perceived negative reaction that they would face.
You only have to look at Graeme Le Saux’s experience to understand why. He claimed that his sporting career was almost ruined by constant homophobic taunts, yet he isn’t gay – which begs the question… What would it have been like for a player who is?
There is a lot that can be said about football and the environment on match day, but wouldn’t we like to be able to say that we were inclusive? That anyone, regardless of their identity or appearance, could feel comfortable and safe in the stands as they supported their team? Unfortunately, we can’t yet claim such a feat.
Our language contributes to the creation of a particular environment, for players and fans alike, and as long as we continue to dismiss and perpetuate comments such as O’Neill’s – it builds a climate which tells LGBTI fans and players that they are not welcome.
Homophobic attitudes and behaviours remain a severe strain on our society, despite what the mainstream will have you believe. For almost a year now, I have been working on a campaign that I co-founded, Time for Inclusive Education (TIE), which is focussed on tackling homophobic bullying in the classroom. We speak with LGBTI young people regularly, and it’s hard not to feel like we have failed as a society when we regularly hear stories of suicide attempts or see the laceration marks on young people’s arms from self harming. Statistics in this area are alarming, with a quarter of LGBTI school pupils having attempted suicide as a result of bullying.
We can all think back on our time at school and remember instances of homophobia, but by the same token – we can also think back and remember the impact that footballers had on us as school pupils. Remember how we idolised them? Remember football cards and Microstars?
This is where football is, ultimately, so much more than simply a sport – it can be used as a vehicle for socio-cultural change. I know that when I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, if Henrik Larsson or David Beckham had taken a stand and said that homophobia was unacceptable and it’s alright to be gay, I reckon it would probably have had quite an impact on me – and my fellow pupils.
Footballers and managers are role models, and the stances that they take are replicated by young people. That’s why “Show Racism the Red Card” was such an effective campaign at the time – because players united around an anti-racism narrative and, suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be racist in the playground. I believe that we need an equivalent for homophobia, as continuing to ignore the issue in front of us will only allow for it to grow. Our campaign has already begun to make inroads in this field, and – hopefully – we can see Scottish football take a stand against inequality once again.
O’Neill’s comments this week are unfortunate and unacceptable, but he is a figurehead in a sport that has kept hush on the issues facing the LGBTI community; choosing silence over action. It’s time to reject that trend and start talking about how we can revolutionise the game and ensure that it is inclusive – because the influence that football has does not start and stop at the turnstiles.
If we begin to address the homophobia that the sport so often perpetuates, then we can play a key role in sparking the real social progress that so many LGBTI football fans and young people are relying on.