Philipp Lahm, captain of Germany’s national soccer team, warns gay players against coming out in his new autobiography:
LAHM: I would not advise any gay professional footballer to come out. I would fear that he could end up like Justin Fashanu who after he outed himself was driven into such a corner that he ended up committing suicide.
While Lahm is certainly not wrong to be concerned about the homophobia inherent in athletics, his approach seems misguided. Fashanu was the first openly gay soccer player (as well as Britain’s first black player to get a £1 million contract), but reports suggest his suicide 13 years ago was largely motivated by allegations of sexual assault and false newspaper reports that there was already a warrant out for his arrest. Suggesting other players might end up like Fashanu encourages a culture of fear, not a culture of acceptance.
Soccer, like most sports, has a homophobic culture. Swedish player Anton Hysen can certainly speak to the hatemail he receives as one of the only out professional soccer players, but enduring such negative responses is not necessarily worse than the stress of closeting oneself. If Lahm really wants to help out his gay teammates, he might instead consider language of acceptance and the leadership he would take as captain to create a welcoming team environment. In fact, his team could improve as a result, based on studies that show the positive impact being out has on an individual’s own performance and the performance of those around him. The world of athletics might have a long way to go in combating homophobia, but the solution is to welcome openly gay teammates, not discourage them.