Conflicting Stories On Homophobia In English Football Show Much Work Remains

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Homophobia in the English game has been in the news a lot this week— and for gay players and fans, the news is decidedly mixed.

BBC Radio 5 published the results of a survey suggesting that homophobia among football fans was on the decline, although the rate of improvement is up for debate. The poll reported that 82% of football fans would have no problem with a gay player on their team, a figure that’s sure to be encouraging for the LGBT community. Yet 50% of fans also report having heard homophobic chants or abuse in the stands. 71% of respondents also believe clubs should do more to educate fans about homophobia. And a full 8% of those surveyed said they would stop supporting their club if they signed an openly gay player.

That survey comes as FA chairman Greg Clarke testified to Parliament that homophobia remains a problem in English football and that he would be “cautious” of encouraging players to come out publicly due to the “significant abuse” they would receive from fans. Yet he also said that the full disinfection of homophobia is long overdue.

”I would be amazed if we haven’t got gay players in the Premier League and I am personally ashamed that they don’t feel safe to come out. There is a very small minority of people who feel able to hurl vile abuse at people they perceive are different. That behaviour is disgusting and needs stamping out.”

There’s a few problems with this survey and the premise it’s based on. First, as a self-reported survey it’s susceptible to social desirability bias. (Those familiar with American politics may know this better as the Bradley Effect.) That means that the number of football fans who are not okay with gay players, and even those willing to turn their backs on their clubs over it, could well be higher than this survey suggests. And second, the survey and the rhetoric surrounding it shifts responsibility for creating a safe and welcoming environment for gay players (and fans) away from clubs, where it belongs, and onto the supporters.

Just yesterday, an incident came to light that suggests that the survey results may have painted an overly-optimistic picture of the current state of homophobia in English football. Following West Ham’s EFL Cup tie with Chelsea, which ended with crowd trouble and some arrests, reports emerged of a flyer circulated among Hammers supporters encouraging people to sing a homophobic song aimed at Chelsea defender John Terry.

(Content Warning for homophobic speech.)

In fairness, there is some speculation that the flyer may not be entirely genuine. But even if it’s fake, it still says some pretty unflattering things about anti-LGBT sentiment among football fans.

Of course, none of this is particularly surprising, but it’s useful to see numbers attached to anecdotes. Until a critical mass of stakeholders— clubs, FA officials, supporters, media— decide to make stamping out homophobia a priority and are willing to correctly diagnose the problem, there will be more surveys and more anecdotes and more high-salaried executives wringing their hands. And more queer fans who decide to just stay home rather than risk their personal safety.

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