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Coming 'Out' to Play

The late Justin Fashanu

American sports fans may consider themselves a more level-headed bunch than their seemingly always rioting European equivalents, but they excel at hurtling vitriol at 'out' gay players.

There was a predictable barrage of columns and blogs this February after John Amaechi’s revelation that he had spent five years playing in the NBA as a gay man. And even more followed Tim Hardaway’s outburst that “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around them… It shouldn’t be in the world or the United States.” Every conceivable opinion emerged in all its ‘must comment on the controversy’ furor, the vast majority being the predictable ‘John Amaechi can do what he likes as long as he doesn’t ram it down my throat’ variety. This is the world of sports writing, folks.

John Amaechi

However, the one column that stood out from the bunch was espn.com’s "Page 2" column by LZ Granderson, America’s leading openly gay sportswriter. Surely he’d be able to see all the complex forces at work here.

Well. Kind of.

The crux of Granderson’s argument was ‘so what?’ Another low profile athlete comes out after his playing career is over. The issue, in Granderson’s words, is “When will somebody simply man up? That is, come out while he is still playing and finally demystify this whole gay athlete thing once and for all.”

He makes a fair case, too. Continuing, “An athlete in 2007 who stays in the closet during his playing days does more to support homophobia in sports than coming out after retirement does to combat it…what I am suggesting is that by not living the truth you are supporting the lie. The lie that gay men are inherently weaker than straight men…It’s about whether a gay athlete can perform on the field or on the court at the same level of excellence and intensity as a straight athlete. I’ve talked to a lot of athletes over the years about having a gay teammate, and their top objection is they believe a gay dude won't be able to pull his own weight.”

What Granderson failed to do, in that time honored tradition of American sports writers, is recognize that professional team sport does exist outside the 50 states (and four or five provinces). And that the rest of the sporting world, presumably to Hardaway’s chagrin, has gay people, too.

Justin Fashanu was one of England’s most promising young footballers in the early '80s. In '80, he was handed the accolade of BBC Goal of The Season for his famous twisting volley from 30 yards out against Liverpool. The next season he was traded to Nottingham Forest for £1million (a massive sum at the time), becoming Britain’s first black million pound player in the process. It was there that the ‘legendary’ Forest manager, Brian Clough, picked up on Fashanu’s as yet undisclosed sexuality, instantly labeling his potential star player “a bloody poof”.

Struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, Fashanu turned to born-again Christianity for a solution. Celibacy and spirituality didn’t help him feel or play better. Off the field his behavior became erratic and on the field, he struggled to pin down a regular team place. Or even a regular team, spending the best part of a decade bouncing from Nottingham Forest to Southampton to Notts County to Brighton, stopping off in Los Angeles and Edmonton, back to Manchester City to West Ham to Leyton Orient to Newcastle. In '90 he came out to the press, becoming the first footballer – the first team sport player of any kind – to do so in Britain. The British black press went backwards in coming forwards with criticism, and he was publicly disowned by his (eventually more successful) football player brother, John.

By 1991 Justin was toiling away in the Devon football backwater of Torquay United, three leagues below the promised land of the Premiership. I saw him play, when The Gulls, as they’re known to their small band of supporters, visited my local team, Barnet FC. The crowd that day was ugly; facially and metaphorically. Normally a docile bunch (in the dozens of games I witnessed I had never once heard a racist remark), but here, the abuse rained down with frightening vehemence. “Why don’t you get AIDS and die!” someone yelled. He wasn’t alone. Fashanu pretended the insults bounced off, holding his butt cheeks doing warm ups, confronting the crowd with their own stereotypes.

I’d like to write that he “manned up” and the abuse bounced off him, but it would be a lie. It would take an incredible human being to not be devastated by the hatred Fashanu experienced. The very fact that a one-time million pound player was toiling away anonymously in a meaningless Division Three fixture would indicate Fashanu wasn’t quite thick-skinned enough. After five more years of drifting around the globe via continual trades, he called time on his playing career, and became coach of the Maryland Mania.

It turned out that America wasn’t the haven for an openly gay sportsman Fashanu had hoped for. In 1998 a 17-year-old man told police that he had woken up in Fashanu’s bed after a drinking bout and been sexually assaulted. It was widely reported that the police had arrested Fashanu and charged him with sexual assault. Although untrue, an arrest warrant had never been issued, the allegations were the final straw. Fashanu returned to London and hanged himself in a deserted garage. His suicide note told the full story. “I realized that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family”.

In his excellent article in The Guardian, "Justin Fashanu – Homophobia Destroyed Him", gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell wrote eloquently how homophobia had effectively tied the rope around Fashanu’s neck. He was undeniably right. No support mechanisms were in place for Fashanu. Not from teammates, the game, its supporters or the media. So yes, LZ, he did ‘Man up’. But it cost him his life.

Ian Roberts

Times were also tough on the other side of the world for Australian rugby league star Ian Roberts when he came out in 1996. Rugby League, the 13-man version of the game that remains the more popular code in Australia and the North of England (and virtually nowhere else), is a brutal game of constant physical confrontation. It’s hit or be hit. There’s nowhere to hide.

So when Roberts announced his sexuality to Australia, he was used to facing tougher abuse than letters containing ill will messages like, “AIDS will finish you in hell. SODOMIST. You are pure filth and will die SOON!” Compared to the fractures of his cheekbone and jaw delivered by his ex-teammates when he left the South Sydney Rabbitohs (now owned by Russell Crowe, fact fans) for the Manley Sea Eagles in '90, hate mail couldn't hit him much harder. Those in the game had always known about Roberts’ sexuality. He had made few attempts to hide it. He faced taunts through games, faced punches as he left the field, and endured abuse and the occasional fist (surprising, considering his physique) as he and his partner would walk around Sydney.

In contrast to Fashanu’s experience however, the more Roberts opened the closet door, the better life became for him. He started bringing his partner to Manly training sessions, and his teammates soon accepted them as a pair, eventually making Roberts’ boyfriend the team mascot. His form improved, and he became a fixture in Australian rugby league’s national team, The Kangaroos. Australia’s star players supported him throughout, defending him against criticism from lesser players eager to assert their masculinity. When Roberts finally announced his sexuality in the media, the support from the rugby league community was virtually unanimous in its support; the presenters of the sport’s biggest weekly show appearing in a high profile poster campaign against homophobia conducted by the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project.

In 1997 the out and nationally famous Roberts was named team captain of North Queensland Cowboys. By then he was simply one of the best rugby league players in the world.

Roberts has had further drama in his life since his retirement from the game. Last year, he gave evidence at the murder trial of a male prostitute in Sydney, revealing that he had known the victim, Arron Light, when Light was a troubled teenager, but had failed to help due to fear of being branded a pedophile (see "Gay Rugby Icon Ian Roberts Testifies About Abuse" on TowlerRoad.typepad.com. It was a tragic case. A matter of months later he was charged with beating up his former partner.

But Roberts has also gone on to success in a completely new field: turning up as Riley, one of Lex Luthor’s henchmen in Superman Returns. He’s the one that holds Superman’s head underwater towards the end. Very masculine.

Although Roberts’ story essentially backs up Granderson’s argument that a gay athlete does more for the gay community and will be happier once he, or she, is out of the closet, it also raises further questions. Australia is a country with its fair share of prejudice, homosexuality being illegal in New South Wales until 1982, but it’s also home of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, an event that’s become so mainstream it’s been able to drop the ‘Gay and Lesbian’ from the name. Even conservative Christian groups protesting the event choose to go with ‘Jesus still loves you’ placards, rather than the vitriolic ‘God hates fags’ catchphrase popular with the Fred Phelps fraternity in the US.

Roberts’ triumph proves that a gay man can succeed in a sport with far greater emphasis on physical toughness than basketball. But the tragic story of Fashanu must way heavily on the mind of any gay professional athlete considering revealing his secret to the world. British soccer fans are a notoriously cruel bunch, deliberately hurling insults towards the pitch in any attempt to unnerve the opposition. It’s an accepted part of the game. Yet Britain in 2007, although hardly free of homophobes, would be considered extremely liberal in its attitude towards homosexuality by American standards. Gay men and women are commonplace in British politics and media. Legal gay partnerships barely raise an eyebrow. When Sir Elton John married his long term partner David Furnish, the hundreds outside were paparazzi, not protestor. The issue is simply not on the political agenda, here. Indeed, for the majority of Western Europeans, we look on in disbelief as so many American politicians and campaigners spend so long trying to undo The Declaration of Independence, depriving liberty (of sexuality) and the pursuit of happiness from so many of its citizens. Even so, the prospect of another sportsman coming out during a playing career seems unlikely.

American sports fans would perhaps consider themselves to be more level-headed bunch than their always rioting European equivalents. But even in baseball, the most placid of the major American sports, the past season saw vast outpourings of hate towards Johnny Damon for switching from the Boston Red Sox to the hated New York Yankees. And massive antipathy was hurled at Barry Bonds, wrapped in issues of drugs, race, and the history of the game, as he had the audacity to surpass Babe Ruth and approach Hank Aaron’s home run record. Damon and Bonds have just trodden on dangerous sporting ground. The homosexual athlete confronts issues beyond sport, entering the fierce realms of politics and religion. That’s a lot for one man to take on his shoulders.

Of course, I hope Granderson is right. America, and the rest of the world, should be able to accept any public figure, sporting or otherwise, on their abilities, not on their sexuality. In the 'what have you done for me' lately cauldron of professional sport, 'coming out' is a tough decision for an athlete to make. Even benchwarmers can make millions with a brief career in the NFL, NBA or MLB. Keep the mouth shut about being gay for five short years, and only worry about introducing your boyfriend once you’re in the mansion. But come out when you’re competing for a spot on the roster and it inevitably rocks the boat in a media storm, potentially leading to a fall out with the coach or a loss of form. The consequences could be fatal for your career. Or, in Fashanu’s case, fatal.

As the media furor dies down, Amaechi goes back to coaching kids in Manchester and Hardaway presumably returns to his day job of picketing abortion clinics and burning crosses. It seems unlikely that the English center’s revelation will trigger an outpouring of honesty within pro sports. But it would be a mistake to accuse those still in the closet of not 'manning up'.

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