Italian striker Antonio Cassano may be good at opening up defenses, but opening up his big mouth is a problem. His dumb comments on gay soccer players drew derision at Euro 2012 earlier this month. He hoped there were no “queers” on the Italian team. Later, he issued the predictable mea culpa apology, most likely written by someone skilled in the verse of damage control.
An estimated 500,000 professionals have kicked soccer balls across the globe. So far, only one top pro has come out as gay, the late Justin Fashanu of England. Tennis, rugby and other sports have witnessed gay athletes coming out. So what of soccer?
English academic Ellis Cashmore, author of “Making Sense of Sports,” published research last year in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues. Ninety-three percent of participants in the broad survey, which included average fans and people involved professionally in British soccer, opposed homophobia.
So I asked him this week: Why have no openly gay players emerged?
“Gay players are already known by the clubs’ front offices as well as other players, perhaps game officials and agents; they observe a code of silence,” Cashmore said. “Reason? They assume it is in none of their interests to make it known if a player is gay. Other players think they will be mocked by players from other teams, front offices think it will hurt the club’s ‘brand’ if it is seen as the only club to have an openly gay player, refs and other officials have members of their own fraternity who are gay and wish to remain in-closet, and agents mistakenly assume their own commissions will take a hit if one of their clients is known to be gay. When a player comes out or is outed, they will all reflect on how wrong they were. Fans’ reactions will be surprisingly muted.”
But the reaction is unlikely to be silent at first.
“There’s no doubt that the first one or two players who come out will experience what British soccer fans call ‘stick,’ i.e. good-humored reprimands or chastisement, which can often be sharp but is essentially not malevolent,” Cashmore told me last year. “They will also encounter more serious forms of bigotry from sections of the crowd. It will be mean, nasty and wounding.”
Who wants to go to a job and be publicly berated every week? Ace German strikerMario Gomez, in an interview last year with German magazine Bunte, said, “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”
Cashmore believes the spectacle will be less cruel over time. “Once the players show their mettle, their sexual orientation will recede in importance. Fans the world over are interested principally in performance on the field of play.”
So where can we find gay soccer players? San Francisco Spikes is a predominantly gay soccer club playing in Bay Area leagues. Jay Higa plays defense, a veteran of 20 years. So how is it being a soccer player who happens to be gay?
“It’s changed a lot,” Higa said. “On the field it doesn’t really matter. Every year it is getting easier. Soccer is not so much a blue-collar sport so I think soccer players in the U.S. might be a little more tolerant. I see some soccer stars coming out in the next 10 years. It won’t be as difficult as a football or baseball player coming out. And it will give us another person to look up to.”
– A short film about the club, “Beyond the Team,” directed by Tim Kulikowski, is featured at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. It’s showing Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St., San Francisco.