“You’re gay…and we’re proud of you”

Why are there no openly gay football players in the men’s Premier League? The maths is simple, and wasn’t done by me but by Scott Patterson at The Republik of Mancunia. He noted that 2% of the UK male population is gay and that there are 700 squad players in the Premier League. Based on these numbers, there should on average be 14 gay players in the league. I took this a step further and worked out that the probability that there is at least one gay player is around 99.9993%: very likely indeed.

Even if we just look at the 200 or so English-born players, the probability that there is a gay English player playing in the Premier League is around 99%.

What is the reason for this lack of openly male gay players? I’m going to look briefly at the scientific research behind three hypotheses: (1) it’s ability; (2) it’s the lads in the team and (3) it’s the clubs and agents. I think it is useful to point readers towards some relevant scientific work and papers, so they can make reasoned arguments.

The first hypothesis —that gay men are not as good as straight men at football — is probably the most offensive. Growing up in the UK in the 80’s, I often heard the term ‘gay’ and the attribute ‘crap at football’ used synonymously by many of my peers (and by myself too, before I knew better). This is (in case I need to say it) a prejudice, but that doesn’t mean it should be left unaddressed by Science. It’s important to be able to explain to prejudiced people, not only why they are offensive, but also why they are wrong.

Scientists have looked at a wide range of physiological explanations and been unable to establish any single biological factor that determines either why a person is gay or why he is good at football. For example, studies of testosterone levels and physical and sporting ability do not show any clear relationships, nor is there any confirmed relationship established between hormone levels and being gay. There is no known gene or set of genes for being gay, nor is there a secret in Messi’s DNA that makes him good at football. Companies offering to DNA profile your child for soccer skills are just bollocks.

It’s important to emphasise that the lack of a single factor does not imply there is no biology involved in being good at football. Rather, there is lots of different aspects of biology involved in being good at football (and being gay). So much so, there are lots of parts of your physiology you can use to be good at the game, and there are many paths to developing the skills required to succeed.

There is one small part of biology that should get a special mention, though. Top-flight footballers are more likely to be left footed than average, and some studies have shown that gay men are more likely to be left handed or ambidextrous. These results are not replicated in every study, so I wouldn’t give them too much weight, but I think they nicely illustrate the complex relationship we should expect between being ‘gay’ and the attribute ‘boss at football’.

So if it’s not the individual, then let’s get in to the team. Here is the sentence that summarises this prejudice: “The lads won’t want to share a shower with someone who is potentially eyeing them up”.

Two sociologists, Adi Adams and Eric Anderson, studied the process through which one player for a US-based Catholic small town team came out. The researchers (one openly gay and one straight) socialized, partied, trained and ate together with a team. They observed the 10 days as Brent told his teammates, in stages, that he was gay. The support Brent received from his teammates, and the way in which the situation was accepted (despite the Midwestern, rural, religious background of his teammates) is touchingly honest. His teammates felt they learnt so much. One of them said, “I’ve always wondered whether it feels good to be fucked. I asked, and now I know. I asked Brent all kinds of stuff about gay sex. It’s cool, it’s totally different than what you’d talk to your straight friends about; but then again it’s really not different.” Obviously, if a straight player can ask ask his teammate about anal sex, he isn’t going to have a problem sharing a locker room with them. And, unsurprisingly, none of Brent’s teammates considered shared changing areas as a problem.

This attitude of players is in no way unique to the USA. In 2013, Rory Magrath and colleagues interviewed 22 players on the verge of becoming professional football players in the UK. They found that the supposed team culture of homophobia in the UK was dead. The players were “unconcerned with sharing rooms with gay players, changing with them in the locker rooms, or relating to them on a social and emotional level”. Their only worry was about the “banter”, because they wouldn’t want to offend the gay teammate.

These studies reflect part of a much larger societal trend where boys and men under 30 have an entirely different attitude to both emotional interactions and homosexuality than men of older generations.

This brings me to my third hypothesis. I couldn’t find research on the culture within the clubs hierarchy and the attitudes of scouts, but given the overall change in societies attitude to sexuality, my feeling is that it is here much of the problem lies here. We occasionally hear older commentators and experts ‘slip up’ with homophobic statements. I imagine (but can’t prove) that this remains a problem within many clubs and the agent system. In one study, Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland, interviewed fans and found views similar to my own. They wrote, “fans suspect they are stigmatized as homophobes because it suits the interests of clubs and agents. Their view is that clubs and agents protect their own interests and dissuade gay players from coming out, while accusing fans as being the main inhibitors.”

What can we do about this as fans?

I wrote this article after reading comments by Chris Whiting on Twitter. He had said he was ashamed of his club Leicester City’s fans after some of them sung homophobic abuse to Brighton. On the fan forum, he was criticised by some other fans for being “ashamed” of his club, when it is just a few individuals who were involved.

I support Chris. I believe, it is the collective responsibility of football fans to get rid of homophobic chanting and attitudes. It isn’t just the stewards or the fans nearest to the offending idiots. It is the responsibility of everyone in the ground. We go to football matches to be together and it is everyone together in the ground that sets the tone. That is the whole point of going to a game, to be together, support of your team and to set the values your team represents.

Sociologists have long understand the power of sports crowds to shape the game’s culture. For example, Tim Hill and his colleagues have studied the campaign Stand Against Modern Football as an example of how fans can come together to try to move the game away from financial interests. It is us who shape the culture around football, and when we don’t shape it properly we should all be ashamed.

The trend is going in the right direction, but there is more to be done. So it is your job as a fan at the match on Saturday to sing Lady GaGa’s “Born this way“ (even if it is not strictly true scientifically), “We’re coming out…” and “We will survive…” until the rest of your fellow fans understand. Make your club a place Chris and other gay fans can be proud of. And maybe, just maybe, it will change attitudes within clubs and help the players who have felt that they have had to hide their sexuality to know that they have the support to finally come out. And this ridiculous, embarrassing farce — imposed on these young lads by an older generation who should no better — can stop.

Professor of Applied Mathematics. Books: The Ten Equations (2020); Outnumbered (2018); Soccermatics (2016) and Collective Animal Behavior (2010).

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David Sumpter

Professor of Applied Mathematics. Books: The Ten Equations (2020); Outnumbered (2018); Soccermatics (2016) and Collective Animal Behavior (2010).