Anti-discrimination campaign groups are urging the Football Association to reconsider its assessment of the phrase 'rent boy' after guidance was issued to a county FA that it does not meet the criteria the governing body uses to determine homophobic language.
In October, a local league match in north Somerset was abandoned in the 80th minute when one team walked off the pitch after the offensive insult was directed at one of their players by an opponent.
The abandonment of the game between AFC Shipham and Portishead Town's 'A team' made national headlines.
The Somerset FA investigated the circumstances of the abandonment in the Weston and District Football League match under its jurisdiction. Immediately after the game, AFC Shipham had posted a tweet alleging 'clear homophobic abuse' from a Portishead player had resulted in the walk-off, adding: "Unacceptable behaviour at any level of the sport. Absolutely disgusting and the player in question needs to have a long hard look at himself."
Portishead issued a statement in response vowing to assist in any investigation and confirming it is "a fully inclusive, family oriented club".
Sky Sports has learned that the ensuing Somerset FA investigation heard that the Portishead player verbally abused his opponent by saying "f**k off, you f***ing rent boy", sparking the Shipham reaction and the subsequent abandonment.
The Portishead player's offence was initially viewed as a potential 'aggravated breach' of improper conduct under FA Rule E3 (2) as the language he used included a reference to "sexual orientation". A witness statement seen by Sky Sports claims that comments were made by the Portishead player about the opposing Shipham player's appearance before the insult being investigated was directed at him.
The same statement claimed Shipham players in earshot immediately informed the referee of what had happened, only for the official to say he had not heard the language used by the Portishead player and therefore could not act. The referee later confirmed this series of events to the Somerset FA himself.
Two witness statements from Shipham players claim that their further discussions with the referee included a suggestion that Shipham might consider walking off the pitch as a result of the incident. When the ball next went out of play, Shipham's captain led his team in a walk-off and the referee abandoned the match.
Sky Sports has been told that in the early stages of the investigation, the Somerset FA sought advice from the FA over how to assess the phrase 'rent boy'. Guidance was issued by the FA's Integrity Unit to say they would not consider the phrase to be 'aggravated' language.
As a result, the player from Portishead was charged under FA Rule E3 (1) for using insulting and offensive language towards an opponent, with the 'aggravated breach' not pursued. He denied the charge but a punishment of a fine was handed down.
Meanwhile, the AFC Shipham captain who led his players in the walk-off was charged with causing an abandonment. A lenient punishment of 'penalty points' was handed down; both clubs were required to pay the administrative fees for the hearing.
As the case was not pursued under FA Rule E3 (2), it was not considered 'serious' and no written reasons were produced and made publicly available on the FA website.
Sky Sports has learned that the Somerset FA also sought advice from the FA on the phrase 'rent boy' after the slur was used in another match on the same weekend in October, this time in the Somerset County League Premier Division. The guidance given said that, due to the phrase's "literal translation", it was not an "aggravated term".
In comparison, at least 20 county FA cases of insulting and offensive language with 'aggravated breaches' related to sexual orientation that resulted in punishments are discoverable on the FA written reasons database from this season alone. Most are related to use of the words 'f****t' and 'poof', either on or off the pitch.
The FA's stance on 'rent boy' appears to be at odds with that of the FA of Wales, whose document 'Challenging Discrimination in Football: A Guide to Match Officials' - distributed to all regional Welsh FAs - lists the phrase as being unacceptable alongside 'f****t' and 'poof'.
Meanwhile, a Scottish FA spokesperson said: "The Scottish FA work with LGBTI partners and stakeholders to remain up to date with the ever-changing landscape of words and phrases which could be deemed discriminatory and offensive. The phrase in question would be regarded as discriminatory and offensive. If it was confirmed that a player used such language towards another in a match under our jurisdiction, then disciplinary action would be taken."
The Irish FA, the sport's governing body in Northern Ireland, said it shared the stance of its Scottish counterparts that use of the phrase would warrant disciplinary action, while an FAI spokesperson said: "The Football Association of Ireland would regard such a term as worthy of investigation under our regulations around discrimination."
Several anti-discrimination and LGBT+ inclusion groups working in football across the UK have told Sky Sports that they disagree with the FA's assessment of the phrase 'rent boy' and state that instances of its use on the field of play towards an opponent should always be investigated as alleged homophobic abuse.
Mike Kalogerou, the chair of GFSN - a body representing players, supporters and campaigners for LGBT+ rights within football which organises the world's largest competitive national league for LGBT+-inclusive football teams - said: "The term 'rent boy' is a clear derogatory term when aimed at another player that, in our opinion, constitutes homophobic language.
"We have been flying the flag for LGBT+ rights in football for over 30 years and we stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone that stands up to homophobic abuse aimed at any player within the game. It saddens, but does not surprise us, that homophobic slurs and terms are continued to be used against players within football.
"Whilst the incident of abuse in the AFC Shipham match was the action of a minority, it is important to understand that such comments can have lasting effects on players embarking on their journey to coming to terms with their sexual orientation, and wanting to play football without the fear of derogatory language being aimed at themselves that is both hurtful, but also damaging. We hope that the FA considers the impact such language can have on players.
"The GFSN does not tolerate racist, homophobic or transphobic slurs of any kind aimed at any of our members and players, and we continue to provide that safe space to enjoy the game."
Sky Sports has spoken to a footballer playing in competitions under Somerset FA jurisdiction about incidents of homophobia he has experienced in the game in recent years.
Callum Hodge, a forward with Chew Magna FC of the Somerset County League Division 2, is gay and out to his team-mates. One incident in which he was subjected to homophobic abuse on the pitch resulted in an opponent being fined and banned under FA Rule E3 (2).
When asked what his reaction would be if he was called a 'rent boy' by an opponent, Hodge said: "I would be fuming. I would probably find that more offensive even than the word 'f****t'. It's a strange insult to call someone. Why would you think to call someone a 'rent boy'?"
Lou Englefield, campaign lead of Football v Homophobia, told Sky Sports: "If, as some claim, 'rent boy' simply refers to a young male prostitute, why aren't other terms such as 'gigolo' used as terms of abuse on the pitch?
"The term 'rent boy', in common usage, is always associated with gay men and is therefore undoubtedly homophobic in this context."
Norfolk County FA director Di Cunningham, who is the founder of Norwich City's LGBT+ and allies fans group Proud Canaries and the former chair of Pride In Football, told Sky Sports News: "This is a very specific term - it doesn't roll off the tongue.
"I'm absolutely convinced that if county FAs, LGBT+ participants, grassroots participants in general and the FA's own Inclusion Advisory Board were consulted, they would advise the FA that this should be treated as an aggravated breach.
"Consistency would be fantastic. The English, Welsh and Scottish FAs share a problem at grassroots level of particularly young men leaving the game. We've got an opportunity post-Covid of bringing people back to football or coming to football for the first time. Let's work together to try to keep people in the game."
On Thursday, usage of the phrase 'rent boy' was discussed at an All-Party Parliamentary Group event titled 'Promoting LGBT+ representation and combatting discrimination in football'.
Addressing MPs and other attendees, Kick It Out trustee and Football Supporters' Association board member Chris Paouros made reference to the use of the phrase as a terrace chant directed at Chelsea supporters by opposition fans.
Paouros said: "The 'rent boy' chant has a massive impact on any gay man who's in a football ground or watching on TV.
"The intent is homophobic when it's being used in a football context or you wouldn't use it."
Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. To mark the occasion I spoke at a joint panel of @APPGLGBT and @WeAreTheFSA, along with @chrispaouros, @AnwarU01, @luketuffs and @gareththomas14, on the progress made & yet to come in football #IDAHOBIT 🏳️🌈⚽ pic.twitter.com/v66jJDsWyH— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) May 17, 2021
Tony Burnett, Kick It Out CEO, told Sky Sports: "Our position is clear, the term 'rent boy' is homophobic and should be treated as such.
"It's important that the right stakeholders are consulted in decision-making processes around discriminatory language, so this doesn't happen again in the future."
An FA spokesperson said: "The FA is committed to tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football at every level of the game. We will continue to work with partners across the game, such as Stonewall and LGBT fan groups, to encourage fans and players to report abuse, both at a national and County FA level, and work with the leagues, campaign groups and the statutory agencies to sanction and educate perpetrators."
In a statement, the Somerset FA said: "We take any allegation of discrimination very seriously and undertake swift and comprehensive investigations. We seek to deal with all incidents of misconduct in the game in accordance with The FA's disciplinary process to the fullest degree. We encourage all participants and spectators to make use of the reporting structures available, either straight to the County FA or via Kick It Out. Discrimination of all forms has no place in football."
Stonewall, the equality charity that runs the Rainbow Laces campaign which is supported by the FA, says it will continue to work with the governing body on identifying and reducing anti-LGBT+ language and behaviour in football.
Robbie de Santos, Stonewall's director of communications and external affairs, said: "Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic chanting are still sadly a feature of some football games. Tackling such offensive language is a crucial part of helping LGBT+ people feel welcome on the stands and on the pitch.
"We will continue to work with the FA to ensure they understand the damage anti-LGBT+ language can do and how to better tackle it. The more players, fans, clubs and organisations that stand up for equality in sport, the sooner we kick discrimination out and make sport everyone's game."
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. Have you been subjected to anti-LGBT+ discrimination in sport? Your story could help to make sport everyone's game. To discuss further, please contact us here.