German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who played for Aston Villa and Everton in the English Premier League and for the German national team, came out as gay in a Wednesday interview with the German magazine Die Ziet.
Hitzlsperger said he came out because he “would like to advance the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes.” He waited until after his retirement, however, because homosexuality “is a topic that is ignored in football”.
“I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays,” Hitzlsperger said. “You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting.”
“Being gay is a topic that is ‘ignored’ in football and not ‘a serious topic in the changing room’,” he added. “Fighting spirit, passion, and winning mentality are.”
Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski, Hitzlsperger’s teammate on the German national team, voiced his support for the player on Twitter, saying, “Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time.”
His rationale for waiting mirrors that of American player Robbie Rogers, who promptly retired from playing for English lower division club Leeds United and came out in January 2013. Rogers at the time said it was “impossible to come out” in English football “because no one has done it.” Locker room banter, the media spotlight, and the possibility that his teammates may view him differently, Rogers said, all contributed to his retirement upon announcing his sexuality. Months later, Rogers returned to the United States and to soccer, when he joined Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy and became the first openly gay male to play in major American team sports.
Gay players in English and European soccer have no doubt been affected by the experience of Justin Fashanu, an English player who came out as gay in 1990. Though his teammates reportedly knew of his sexuality before he came out publicly, Fashanu was ostracized by his coach, fans, and most notably, his brother, a fellow soccer player who appeared sparingly for the English national team. Fashanu committed suicide in 1998.
The matter of whether European soccer is a safe place for players to come out is still debated openly there. “I don’t think that the society is that far ahead that it can accept homosexual players as something normal as in other areas,” Phillip Lahm, who has captained the German national team for which Hitzlsperger has played, said in 2012. That drew disagreement from the German soccer president and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she wanted to “send out a clear message” to gay players: “you must not be afraid.” Just this week in England, Michael Johnson, a member of the Football Association’s Equality Board, stepped down for saying that “homosexuality is detestable unto the Lord.”
In England, at least, there is evidence that Hitzlsperger’s coming out could achieve his goal of having an impact on how the sport views homosexuality. For that evidence, look to how the FA has combated overt racism that used to be a common feature of its games, whether it came from fans, coaches, or other players. The FA has made a concerted effort to rid its game of racism in recent years — in 2011, it suspended Liverpool striker Luis Suarez eight matches for a racist taunt directed at a Senegalese opponent. It has also banned fans from matches and levied heavy fines and sanctions against clubs whose players and fans exhibit racist behavior. Though it is impossible to get rid of racism altogether, the FA has succeeded in reducing the number of racist incidents at its matches, especially compared to other countries and international organizations that have not taken such tough stands.
That would suggest that a similar fight against homophobia could work. The FA has already established an anti-homophobia campaign similar to the anti-racism campaign that spurred action on that issue. That campaign, according to the Football v. Homophobia web site, will help the FA focus its efforts “on the issue of homophobia and transphobia in football. The game we all love is for everyone – and that includes Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Trans people.” The campaign will, throughout February and March, “focus on the issue, bring the debate to the fore and, just like the anti-racism campaigns, ensure everyone understands homophobia and transphobia in football is unacceptable.”
Many black players, however, would argue that more needs to be done to combat racism and the general lack of diversity on the sidelines and in executive positions in English soccer (and they would be right in doing so), so a campaign shouldn’t be the extent of the action the FA takes. The Equality Board from which Johnson stepped down is scheduled to meet this week to discuss plans to increase diversity in soccer, and while much of the FA’s embarrassment about a lack of inclusion still centers around race, Hitzlsperger’s coming out should provide the impetus needed to further make LGBT equality a major part of that discussion too. Perhaps, even, Hitzlsperger, who spent six years in the Premier League, would make a sound Equality Board replacement for the now absent Johnson.