The recent announcement from former Aston Villa and West Ham United midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger has sparked a big reaction from sports media across the world, but is perhaps best epitomised by the title of one BBC article: ‘Where are the world’s gay pro athletes?’
The world of football certainly hasn’t seen a wealth of openly gay players or organisers. Hitzlsperger is one of the few players, however not many media reports acknowledge the fact that this announcement came after his retirement. This sends a message to the public that says the world of football still maintains a hostile environment for those who wish to be openly gay whilst playing.
Chris Gibbons is one figure in football attempting to change this. An openly gay member of the governing body the Football Association, one of Gibbons’ main aims is to help remove the hostility and bias that lingers in the sport.
Football is one of many team sports across the world that has few, if any, gay athletes who can participate without fear of ridicule by either fans or fellow players due to the hyper masculinity that lies at its core.
However, athletes who compete individually in their chosen sport have appeared more comfortable in sharing their sexuality. Popular British diver Tom Daley was able to recently admit his sexual orientation in the knowledge that he wouldn’t have to face such a strong core of masculinity rooted in fans and players of his sport.
One of the few team athletes to have come out as gay is NBA athlete Jason Collins, who made his announcement in Sports Illustrated last May. Subsequent events showed how the media taints the public view of gay pro athletes. There was significant emphasis from that point onward that Collins was a gay athlete and was continually and excessively labelled as such, particularly when, as the start of the next basketball season arrived, he was yet to be offered a contract. He was no longer just a basketball player; he was the gay basketball player.
It is also worth noting that despite the number of female athletes being openly gay, the media rarely publicises such announcements in the same way as a male athlete’s admission. The implications of this is that it is more shocking to have a male gay athlete because of the strong association with masculinity in sport. Therefore, a perceived feminised male figure is more shocking than a more masculinised woman as a result of their declared sexuality.
In this way we can see how so many factors, including fans, team mates and the media, can hold an athlete back from being completely open about their sexuality, if they have a desire to do so.
Increasingly, campaigns are being launched in an attempt to help create an equal and comfortable environment for gay pro athletes who wish to be open about their sexuality. Recently Nike revived a 1985 campaign and called it #BETRUE, working alongside Collins. This helps to fund the Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Sports Coalition, whose aim it is to end bias in sports by 2016.
Should campaigns such as this help the current sporting environment, it then begs the question what should be expected of gay pro athletes? To what extent should their sexuality really affect their career?
The admission of their sexuality can be seen as an athlete’s willingness to accept certain responsibilities that come with it. Responsibilities such as acting as a role model for younger generations who may see sport as something that would exclude them because of their sexuality.
Furthermore, the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia present a terrifying threat to athletes who may face persecution for being homosexual despite their desire to simply compete like every other athlete at the games. Bravery of athletes willing to face this persecution is not unlike the courage showed by athletes such as Jesse Owens, who tackled racial discrimination in the 1936 Olympics in Germany. In cases like the ones above, athletes who openly acknowledge their sexuality to the world do hold a certain responsibility to help lead attempts to end discrimination, hostility and bias.
However, when considering the sporting ability and presence of any athlete, sexuality should not be a consideration that determines their career, in the same way race or religion should not do so. Hopefully, in the future, sports athletes, fans and media may reach a point where sexuality holds little relevance and the sole matter is what you bring to your sport as an athlete.