Men of the match: gay footballers Ade (Arinzé Kene) and Jason (Russell Tovey) in The Pass. Photo: Lionsgate.
A new film, The Pass, tells the story of two ‘closeted’ gay footballers. Starring Russell Tovey as Jason, and Arinzé Kene as Ade, it charts their progression from teenagers on the cusp of a breakthrough match that will define their careers, to grown men living with the decisions they made after one fateful night.
Aside from it being a powerful film, featuring strong performances from Tovey and Kene – both of whom may be the proud holders of an Evening Standard film award by the time this is published – it shines a timely light on the issue of homosexuality in football.
The film shows the torture felt by central character Jason, who spends an entire career repressing his sexuality, something you assume isn’t uncommon in the real world. Particularly given the statistics: despite the fact that Office of National Statistics data reveals two per cent of men in the UK identify as gay, there is not one openly gay footballer in the top four flights of English football.
There’s a lot to unpick here, enough probably for a series of essays rather than just one article. For a start, why is it necessary for a footballer to come out? I don’t have to come out as straight. Surely it’s on society to understand sexuality as well as gender as more fluid concepts?
That said, clearly the increased visibility of gay men and women – and particularly in communities and industries dominated by or perceived as ‘belonging to’ specific genders, or indeed sexes – is a desirable and beneficial thing. It would also be of use to those within the game and outside of it feeling pressure to ‘conform’, for want of a better word.
LGBT charity Stonewall is currently working to highlight this problem. Speaking to Standard Issue, a spokesperson cited some shocking statistics: “Homophobia is a serious issue in sport – on the pitch, in the terraces and in the locker rooms. For example, we know that 72 per cent of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at a live sports event.”
They added: “We have also learned from our research that attitudes in sport need to change before everyone feels free to be themselves, both on and off the pitch. Two thirds (60 per cent) of young people said openly LGBT players would have a positive impact on the culture of sport.”
When you look at the statistical improbability of the absence of openly gay footballers, there are questions to be asked. But one of those must also be why then, in the women’s game, is it that society almost assumes athletes will be gay?
A cursory Google will reveal pretty quickly that sport is still, undeniably, perceived as a man’s world. For a start, you’ll be hard pressed to find any coverage of women’s sport at all in the mainstream media – and why would you when that valuable space could be filled by a story about Anthony Joshua picking up some weights with his teeth, or a picture of a Chelsea fan in her bikini (as it was on the Mail Online’s website while I was writing this).
It’s easy to conflate the issues, because they are undeniably intertwined. The issue of homophobia in football boils down to two key societal fallacies alongside this perception of sport as an overtly masculine world: gay men are not ‘real men’ and gay women are not ‘real women’. This contributes to the acceptance or lack thereof of both groups on the pitch. These are assertions that, in 2016, need to be addressed in the strongest of terms because they are clearly bullshit.
These assertions make sport a more hostile environment for everyone, not just the demographics directly implicated, who could otherwise be enjoying its myriad benefits. Young girls, in particular, cite the perception of sport being ‘for boys’ as a reason why they drop out of physical education, as so many do in their early teens.
Let’s be clear on this: if you’ve been using your genitalia for any sport outside the kind practised between consenting adults in the bedroom, you have been doing it wrong.
Stonewall’s campaign is focussed on tackling the issue of homophobia in sport, so that it becomes “everyone’s game” – something where we all, but particularly the gender equality lobby, should stand beside the LGBT community.
Sport, and football particularly, presents a ridiculous paradox that’s as damaging to heterosexual men as it is to any other section of society. It is celebrated in terms of traditional standards of masculinity, while at the same time overtly demonstrating characteristics defined by society as ‘feminine’.
For example, why is it somehow more acceptable for a man to show emotion during a football match than it is in everyday life? Just look at the sunburned guy in the England shirt, smudging the St George’s flag painted on his face as he weeps over whatever tournament his team just crashed out of.
Rather than being seen as the bastion of homophobia, what if football actually played an active role in challenging perceptions of sexuality and gender identity? Now that would make it a beautiful game.
Find out more and support Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign here.
The Pass is on general release from today.
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Written by Jen Offord
Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen
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One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto
by Steve Almond
Steve Almond's blistering book Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto is exactly what it advertises itself to be: an exasperated, frustrated, wide-ranging argument that the time has come to abandon football — particularly but not exclusively the NFL — as a sport built on violence, racism, economic exploitation of poor kids, corrupt dealmaking with local governments over stadiums, and a willingness to find it entertaining to watch people suffer brain damage.
The most important question with any book like this is whether it's being written to persuade or to fist-pump — whether the intended audience is current football fans or current football haters who have believed for years that football was stupid who are eager to have substantive claims of harm to mix in with their personal taste in what is classy and what is not. Particularly in the early going, Almond speaks to fans as a fan: he lays out his passionate attachment to the Oakland Raiders and the agony his fandom has wrought. But he also explains how important football was to his relationship with his dad, and how much he enjoyed camaraderie with fellow fans at a sports bar, and how he loved the sport enough to be transported just by reading about it.
But he eventually turns his attention to a variety of things he says ail the sport at the professional level: those stadium deals that benefit team owners, the kids who will do anything to pursue football in part because they sense limited options, the homophobic bullying culture he sees playing out in stories like the bizarre tale of Richie Incognito, and especially — especially — evidence he cites that even ordinary, day-to-day football, played without anybody getting a concussion, can to permanent brain damage, profound suffering for current and former players, and shortened life spans.
There are times I felt like the critique became too sweeping: he offers some valuable critiques of The Blind Side (the book, not the film), but comes uncomfortably close (for me) to suggesting the family that adopted Michael Oher did so strictly to exploit him for the sake of Ole Miss football, an accusation that's been hurled at them a lot based on essentially circumstantial evidence. And, to my eye, he reads a tone of "triumph" in the book's presentation of their using correspondence courses to skirt the academic requirements of college where I read "whatever it takes, however imperfect, given this particular kid's circumstances."
Similarly, his criticism of Friday Night Lights seems built on the assumption that to present a way of life as being true for a group of characters is to endorse it as a desirable one — I'd counter that in a critical scene, Coach Eric Taylor once made it clear that pride is not worth kids being injured, no matter how much they may want to play on. And in fairness to the writers, what "injured" in football means has evolved even in the time since that show was on; his frustration that concussions weren't mentioned may be a little unfair to people who started writing a network show in 2006.
But also in fairness — to him this time — those things, both that book and that show, are things I like. This is the entire challenge of this little (under 200-page) book: you are challenging what people hold dear. If you question for a moment how personally people take their love of football, give a gander to his sampling of the hate mail he received when he started writing about his reservations about football (one of the few funny parts of the book), or check out the comments from when Here & Now talked to him last month when Against Football first came out.
While I'm certainly not a superfan of football, I will tell you that one of the first things I demanded when I got my new cable package was RedZone, the NFL cable channel that shows football all day every Sunday during the regular season, jumping from game to game without commercials. I consider it one of the few really great new ideas cable has had in a while, and I made sure I'd have it. I've been considerably cooler to the idea this year, both because of the injury issues Almond spends the most time on in this book and because of the issues the league has with both domestic violence and transparency.
One of the smart things about Almond's approach is that he doesn't claim that watching football is bad because it's lowbrow, or because it's dumb, or because it has no appeal. He's not throwing in with the people you may know who rail about the stupidity of sports as compared to high art, and he's not denying the understandable, genuine appeal of the game as a spectacle and a ritual. He's saying information has changed, our understanding of the consequences of watching as entertainment the likely shortening of people's healthy lives has evolved, and the business aspects of the NFL have taken on unsavory characteristics that may not be desirable for a variety of reasons.
I don't think the purpose of the book is entirely to persuade people to give up football, but I do think the purpose is to ask people to consider and process all of the pieces of this argument: When you consider the whole picture, is it something you want to watch and support? Even if it is, then if you've read the book, you've at least heard and processed a full-throated version of the case ... well, against it.