It is the prejudice that dares not speak its name. Homophobia exists in football, just as surely as it does in all other areas of society, but just how severe is the problem? Who is to blame for the climate of fear that keeps, as publicist Max Clifford claimed last December, at least three bisexual and gay footballers in the closet and arguably many more? Clifford advised the players to keep their sexuality secret, telling them that football "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia." Indeed, to date there has been just one openly gay footballer in Britain - former Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu, who tragically committed suicide in 1998.
But the question remains - is football mature enough for another Fashanu? The sport may have made huge strides in tackling racism over the last 15 years - today it is highly unlikely that fans, especially in the top flight, could racially abuse a footballer en masse without fear of reprisal. But how would an openly gay player be received? Opinion on this is split. First there is the issue of reaction from fellow players. On this front, the director of anti-racism initiative Kick It Out believes Clifford is "scaremongering." Piara Power argues that while players may suffer abuse from fellow professionals, it would not go unpunished because, since 2007, homophobia is penalised heavily in the Players' Code.
Rules E3(2) and E4 penalise homophobic abuse as heavily as that of a racist nature. Players who use homophobic abuse towards a fellow professional, as Robbie Fowler infamously did against Graeme Le Saux in 1999, would now receive an immediate red card. In short, the hope is that a player who came out today would not be going it alone, as was the case with Fashanu, who was bullied in the dressing room, particularly at Nottingham Forest where manager Brian Clough ostracised him from the rest of the squad. However, preventing similar abuse from taking place in the ultra-macho world of the changing room would be the job of the football clubs and unsurprisingly evidence of how severe the problem is behind the closed doors of the locker room is anecdotal at best; and yet the picture of the situation on the terraces is also unclear.
Home Office statistics of football-related arrests and banning orders for last season lists a range of offences, including missile throwing, racist chanting and ticket touting, but a section entitled homophobic abuse is conspicuous by its absence. Incidents of homophobic abuse are recorded under the banner of "indecent chanting," so statistics specifying which of these incidents involved homophobia are not released to the public.
However, a call to the Home Office revealed that there were four arrests for homophobic behaviour last season and one in the 2007-8 season. Darren Ollerton, director of anti-homophobia initiative The Justin Campaign which takes its name from the late footballer, is convinced that any player who came out in the current climate would be letting themselves in for a baptism of fire. The Justin Campaign was founded in Brighton, whose football club's fans are regularly targeted with chants of "Does your boyfriend know you're here?" and "You're queer and you know you are. "Homophobia is still considered acceptable amongst a number of football fans," says Ollerton, whose campaign launched Football v Homophobia Day, an international day opposing homophobia in the amateur and professional game, last Friday on what would have been Fashanu's 49th birthday. "It's the last socially acceptable prejudice and I imagine in a hyper-macho environment, which some areas of the terraces can be, homophobic comments aren't only common but are in some senses expected. The use of words like poof, queer, gay boy, faggot are part of football language for a number of fans and the longer it remains consistently unchallenged the more it becomes an acceptable form of expression amongst the next generation of football fans. "I think it's a very serious problem, but the longer the authorities debate over what's acceptable and what's not, as though certain homophobic words are 'less' offensive, the more entrenched this problem will become."
Kick It Out, which turned their attentions to tackling anti-gay abuse five years ago, keep some records of incidents of homophobia at English football matches but do not turn them into statistics. Measuring homophobia - and the successes or failures of campaigns against it - is therefore difficult. However, the Home Office confirmed on Wednesday that their statistics of football-related arrests and banning orders for next season will specify homophobic abuse in a separate column. However, the government department believe that there is currently no evidence that homophobic incidents at football matches are increasing or a significant phenomenon, but say that the matter is under review. Even so, statistics would only paint a partial picture of the problem, as, without any openly gay footballers currently playing, we can only guess at how fans would react to them. There could be a sudden explosion of homophobia in the stands. Conversely, football may have grown more tolerant since Fashanu's playing days. Either way, his demise must surely loom large in the mind of any player considering coming out. With the media obsession with players' private lives showing no sign of abating, a gay or bi player would have to be a sado-masochist to want to be a guinea pig in an experiment into the moral state of British society.
Yet this is the end goal of the Justin Campaign - for gay footballers to feel that they can be open about sexuality without being targeted for abuse, as well as being treated as equals in the changing room. The campaign's Football v Homophobia Day, which was held in Norwich, received support from the city's football club, local MPs Charles Clarke and Chloe Smith, as well as Justin Fashanu's niece Amal, who expressed pride that her uncle's memory was being used as a force to fight one of football's last bastions of prejudice. "It's just amazing that people who were strangers to Justin, who didn't actually know Justin, feel so greatly for him," said Amal. "If the campaign does expand, if it does become bigger, then it's an opportunity for many other players to come into it. It's a sign that people can just be who they want to be." Support for the Justin Campaign is growing, but it is has struggled to gain significant support from clubs. All 92 Premier and Football League clubs were contacted about the launch of Football v Homophobia, but only four - Blackburn, Burnley, Morecambe and Gillingham - agreed to include information about the campaign in their match day programmes. Two clubs, Crystal Palace and Norwich, hosted information about the campaign on the website, while Brighton & Hove Albion endorsed the event and maintain close ties with the campaign.
Overall, though, the sense is that most clubs are fearful of going it alone when it comes to tackling homophobia without strong leadership from the FA, whose decision to pull a recent anti-homophobia video has been interpreted in many quarters that they have no identifiable strategy on how to tackle the issue. For the time being, however, the biggest battle may be convincing the authorities that homophobia is actually a problem at all.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.