In the subsequent, weird online half guessing-game, half witch-hunt, one soccer star has already taken to Twitter to deny he is one of the anonymous players.
Manchester United player Luke Shaw felt the need to deny he was gay after his fans slammed the “idiocy” of rumors about him.
“It’s not me, so everyone can shut up now,” was Shaw’s rejoinder.
Shaw has been sitting out a few games with an injury, which he has documented, sexily, on Instagram, perhaps quickening some gay hearts.
But all you needed to know about why there might still be nervousness on the part of footballers when it comes to coming out is there in one Twitter wag gossiping about Shaw: “His leg might be bent hahaha but he’s not.”
Other commenters ask: What’s the big deal? Do it already.
Presumably, the anonymous players haven’t done it for the same reason so many soccer players haven’t done it: They are too scared and fearful at being the first. What will the fans say? Their fellow players?
Popular culture is a very different bastion than professional sports when it comes to entrenched homophobia, and the players’ nervousness is all too understandable.
Coming out may seem so much easier now, but for sportsmen and women, old ghosts of prejudice loom large—and sometimes very audibly from the stands where the fans cheer and chant abuse.
“The stars are thought to be planning to go public before the start of next season,” the Mirror reported. “We can also reveal that another well-known player came out to friends in 2011. But a homophobic word was then daubed in paint across his car. It is understood he is now reluctant to come out publicly in case he is the target for more abuse.”
The players—one an England international—are understood to have already told family and friends, and, the Mirror reported, are being supported by their clubs and the Football Association.
Like the very apex of the Hollywood star system, soccer—indeed sport in general—remains a notably fallow sphere of outness. Fear of the response from fans, bosses, and fellow players conspires to keep players in the closet.
Sure, there are exceptions: Robbie Rogers is out, and plays for LA Galaxy. Ex-Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger retired before his 2014 announcement that he is gay.
But in the UK, as the Mirror reported, no male footballer has come out while still playing professionally since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
Fashanu’s declaration represented its own tragic landmark: He received little support, was subjected to vile abuse by fans, and hanged himself in a disused East London garage after being accused of sexual assault in 1998.
The assault had allegedly taken place in Maryland, and Fashanu had protested his innocence.
In 2012, his brother John—also a former professional footballer—asserted his brother wasn’t gay, but an attention seeker.
Fashanu’s example of rejection from all sides, including his family, remains the depressing standard.
But perhaps the considerable social and cultural change of the last 20 years could manifest in a far more positive and embracing response to a footballer coming out today.
Certainly, if the story about the two Premiership players is true, they will be coming out in a climate where vicious homophobia is certainly not voiced as freely as it was in 1990.
If they are nervous about the reaction of fans on the terraces, they can look to the so-far positive experience of Keegan Hirst, who recently became the first British rugby league player to come out as gay, as well as Gareth Thomas, who became the first rugby union player to come out in 2009.
Sam Wallace, chief football writer of the Telegraph, writes that the two players in question need not fear fans:
“The first high profile gay footballer among Arsenal’s men’s senior team, or Manchester United, or Chelsea, will undoubtedly be a major event in the English game, and understandably so. There will be offence taken on social media, lines drawn, accusations made. Someone will doubtless tweet something insensitive and be pilloried. The first few games from the player in question will be more about listening for any trace of abuse from the crowd rather than the result. Then, after a few weeks of excitement it will die down. Someone else, doing something else, will find themselves trending—and in football we will all go back to complaining about the standards of refereeing.”
Former England boss Graham Taylor has said: “I don’t know who they are, but good for them. If they do come out, then at least they will be in control of the situation.
“A lot of things are said in dressing rooms in football. This way, the players concerned make sure that any information comes out in the way that they want.”
And so the stage is set. Most people are saying the right things. But will those fine words be matched if and when the players come out, and play their first matches?
Their coming out will not only be a test for them, but also the fans, their clubs, and footballing authorities—and, most tellingly, if other players follow their lead too.
Too often sports stars’ coming out happen in isolation—they are hailed for their bravery, but often—like Michael Sam—end up standing alone.
The media is so excited by the news frenzy attendant on an isolated declaration it ignores that—in terms of a crude numbers game—very few sports stars are out. The ones that come out are totems.
As the two Premiership stars must surely be hoping (if the story is true), coming out doesn’t end with the words courageously said; practical, visible, audible support and encouragement from teammates, bosses, loved ones, and fans is crucial too.
The players’ bravery will set the best kind of example to fans—many straight and male—challenging football’s image of uncontested heterosexuality. The tragedy of Justin Fashanu should not continue to define professional soccer’s relationship to homosexuality: The beautiful game is surely ready to embrace something more beautiful.