Something incredibly unusual happened in the UK on Monday night. The seldom watched BBC 3 channel broke the mold and drew a transfixed audience. And the reason for it was a truly remarkable one too!
No, it wasn’t some new lame reality show. There were no celebrities on a panel humiliating passing victims. It wasn’t some new game show with ridiculously fake people trying to “outsmart” each other for a prize.
It was actually a documentary.
Before you start snoring at the mere reading of the word documentary, this was an important moment for the UK. In recent years there has bee a fair bit of discussion about football (soccer) here, and how corrupt it might be, how racist it might be, how violent it often is, and so on. But something that rarely sees a word of discussion is how homophobic our national sport is.
There is no doubt that racism is not acceptable in football. Great steps have been made in recent years to stamp it out, with racist chants resulting in fines for the clubs responsible, players banned and publicly humiliated when found guilty of racist slurs on the pitch, and new rules being drawn up to weed out those kinds of poisonous attitudes from the fans and players.
But something that has not been confronted is homophobia.
In the last year we’ve seen Sepp Blatter – the head of FIFA – laughing openly about the issue of gay rights and the safety of gay football fans when visiting violently homophobic nations. It wasn’t just him either, the entire room joined in laughing, a room full of sports media from around the world. It seemed that they were incredulous that there could be any gay football fans. And even if there were, their Human rights and safety were not the concern of FIFA.
So, what happened on BBC 3 on Monday? They screened Britain’s Gay Footballers, a documentary created and presented by the (beautiful) Amal Fashanu – daughter of John Fashanu – asking why there were no openly gay footballers in the national game.
For those who might not be aware, Amal Fashanu is the niece of the tragic Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay footballer to ever come out in the UK, and who subsequently took his own life in 1998 after the decline of his career and repeated revelations and accusations about his private life.
His brother, John Fashanu – also a footballer but far less skilled – had abandoned him. His entire family had seemingly disowned the young man, and so when he found himself in a position that he couldn’t tolerate any longer, he found that the only way out was to end his life.
It was a remarkable documentary, and it increased the viewing figures for the seldom-watched channel by 50%. Twitter was abuzz with discussion about the show, with the vast majority of all comments seeming to be supportive and positive toward the issue, and highly critical of the sporting bodies responsible for maintaining the status quo, and critical of John Fashanu himself.
Although the marked absence of openly gay football players is in itself quite worrying, there were two things specifically about the documentary which unsettled me.
Firstly, young Amal Fashanu faced a wall of almost complete silence from clubs, managers and players across the UK. It seemed that no professional player was willing to come forward and discuss homophobia or gay players. Even when in a room full of professional footballers she was met with silence, childish giggles or complete arrogance. It really seemed as though a message had gone out from some sort of mafia Don that no one should speak to her. Or else they may find a horses head in their locker!
The second thing that struck me was the interview with her father, John Fashanu, about his dead gay brother. You know what he said? He called his brother selfish, for “embarrassing” and “shaming” his family. Even after his brothers suicide (with a note stating how totally alone he felt) John Fashanu has no shame in sticking to his tried and trusted line of labeling his brother an embarrassment.
After a gut-wrenching and tear inducing film, there were a couple of shining moments that offered some hope. Joey Barton – professional UK footballer – was confident enough to come forward for an interview and was a shining example of common sense and tolerance. He even went as far as suggesting that there would be an openly gay professional football player in the UK within the next ten years.
Gareth Thomas, openly gay Welsh Rugby player, also spoke on camera – with a number of his straight teammates alongside him. Making the contrast between the two sports quite remarkable. As Gareth says, the Rugby union released a statement after Gareth came out expressing complete support for him. His teammates made statements to the same effect at every opportunity too. People who know him and work with him were lining up to say how much they love the guy and that they support him in his brave decision.
Hold that up against giggling immaturity and ignorance of Sepp Blatter, a silent majority of homophobes in the management of the sport, the ignorance and astounding bigotry of the many players in football who couldn’t find the balls to speak on camera, and the fact that the only openly gay footballer in the British history is dead while his brother still thinks he was an embarrassment… it all becomes quite clear doesn’t it?
I wish I believed that we’d see another openly gay footballer in the UK in the next ten years. But I very much doubt it.