Speculation over gay footballers unhelpful, says Stonewall's Ruth Hunt
Rainbow Laces initiative focused on making football culture more inclusive; LGBT-friendly team Charlton Invicta FC's player-manager also encouraged by campaigns
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 28/10/17 9:20am
Dispelling "fear" around sexuality and not indulging in speculation can make football more inclusive, says the chief executive of the charity behind sport's Rainbow Laces campaign.
Stonewall's Ruth Hunt has voiced concerns over recent tabloid newspaper coverage of gay players, and says an appreciation of the difference between "privacy and secrecy" is needed to create a more accepting environment.
The Rainbow Laces campaign, which is entering its fifth year, aims to "make sport everyone's game" by tackling language and behaviour that discourages lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from participation or attendance.
One paper's midweek front-page headline described the "secret" of two unnamed gay footballers, referring to an interview given to a Belgian newspaper by the former Premier League defender Carl Hoefkens in which he mentioned having team-mates who were gay during his playing days in England 10 years ago.
Asked if she had concerns over the coverage, Hunt told Sky Sports: "The tabloids have always been obsessed about the sexuality of players, in a way that borders on a little bit weird.
"It's of no surprise to Stonewall that lads and women who are at the peak of their game just want to play good football, and don't want to provide fodder to those tabloids to be sensational and pore over the details of what they're doing in their lives. It's a real indication of the lack of maturity of some of the discussions around this sector."
Hunt was speaking at a Charlton Athletic Community Trust event held in conjunction with the L&Q Foundation, whose 'One Goal' programme delivers sports programmes to young people across London and also raises awareness on issues of inclusion. Rainbow Laces were distributed as part of the event, which was attended by Addicks manager Karl Robinson, his assistant Lee Bowyer and first-team players Chris Solly and Ezri Konsa.
Hunt added: "One of the things that concerns us most at Stonewall is for the young people who are sitting at home, while that newspaper is on their kitchen table. What message does it give them?
"That's why more initiatives like this [the 'One Goal' programme] counteract some of that lurid fascination with what people do. It feels very 1990s, and it's time we all grew up."
Hunt is keen to move the focus away from the pitch and onto progress being made among the wider football fraternity, with teams such as Charlton Invicta FC - the first LGBT-inclusive side to officially associate with a professional club's community trust - and LGBT fan groups providing increased visibility and representation.
A gay footballer's story
Adam McCabe spoke to Sky Sports back in February about his experiences in English football...
"Stonewall's not interested in speculating about which players may or may not be gay, and we're certainly not hanging our campaign on the moment when someone might want to tell us they're gay," she said.
"I don't trust the motivations of those who speculate for that to be an entirely inclusive act. Individuals might be speculating and thinking about how we improve the game but as soon as that gets reported, that's about sensationalising.
"At Stonewall, it's about the much bigger picture. I think we can all agree that there are probably people who are gay playing football right now. What the question should be that we're all asking is, 'how can we create an environment that they can play their best game?' And what worries us at Stonewall is that, for someone who is not open, there's a difference between privacy and secrecy.
"If someone wants to be private, that's entirely fine. If someone's keeping a secret because of fear, that will affect their game. That is just a no-brainer.
"So how can we ensure that that person is respecting their privacy, rather than feeling they have to keep a secret? That's what we should all be concerned about."
Charlton Invicta, who play in the London Unity League, were previously known as Bexley Invicta but became a landmark addition to the Addicks' Community Trust set-up back in August.
Their player-manager Gary Ginnaw is encouraged by the growing awareness around LGBT inclusion in football, highlighting UEFA's new #EqualGame campaign and the star names involved in the message of "a zero-tolerance stance to racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination".
"To see someone like Paul Pogba saying a gay player who chose to be out would be respected on the pitch, that's fantastic," said Ginnaw.
"When you have professional footballers that are idols to a lot of children, saying they support initiatives like this, it makes a massive statement. It wasn't around when I was 12 or 13, and struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, and I wish it was.
"Everyone's different in their own way and you've got to embrace that, but it also comes from up the top as well - from FIFA, UEFA and The FA. It's a two-fold initiative.
"We've got to keep plugging away and working hard. We're making in-roads but there's a long way to go."
Ginnaw believes the key to LGBT inclusion in football, and in society, lies in respecting the individual's decision.
"If you're gay, you don't have to come out, you don't have to tell the world, but you can if you want to - that's the key message," he said.
"If you want to be who you want to be, without hiding who you are, then it's OK and it has to be accepted."