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Coming out in the not so beautiful game – why Josh Cavallo’s revelation can start the comeback against homophobia in football

Posted: 06/12/2021


In October this year, Adelaide United midfielder Josh Cavallo announced that he is gay. The fact that 22-year-old Cavallo is the only current top-tier professional male footballer to openly and publicly state that he is gay is quite staggering.

A 2020 CIES Football Observatory report found that 55,865 men played professional football in the top two tiers of professional football across 93 countries. An Office of National Statistics Annual Population survey of those aged 16 and above in the UK from 2018 found that 1.4% of those surveyed identified as gay or lesbian. That number rose to 2.9% if you include those who selected a sexual orientation other than ‘heterosexual’.

The worldwide number of players clearly includes male footballers playing in many different societies around the world (and so the percentage of people identifying as gay may be different in other nations) but, even just by taking these figures as broad indicators, it is reasonable to assume that around 750-800 male professional players are likely to identify as gay in the main tiers of professional football.

By contrast, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup featured just 24 teams. However, 40 participants were openly gay or bisexual. Notable members of the victorious US Women’s team at the 2019 World Cup included Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger (who are now married to each other), and the winner of the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, Megan Rapinoe. Therefore, three of the best female footballers in the world are openly gay. On the other hand, while there are a few players currently playing in the lower tiers of the game who are openly gay, Josh Cavallo is the only male footballer playing top tier men’s football who has publicly come out. However, he is at the start of his career and would not have become such a household name in many countries based on his ability prior to his announcement, in contrast to the USA’s World Cup winning female team.

Reluctance to come out

Clearly, there is fear of the stigma of coming out in the men’s game at the highest level of the sport. In Cavallo’s own words, he said, “Being a gay closeted footballer, I’ve had to learn to mask my feelings in order to fit the mould of a professional footballer… In football, you only have a small window to achieve greatness, and coming out publicly may have a negative impact on a career…” In early November 2021, an unnamed Spanish footballer in La Liga, Spain’s top division (and a higher profile league than the Australian A-League), came out as bisexual and thanked Josh Cavallo for his bravery. However, that player has still not revealed his name.

In the past 30 years, other male footballers have come out as gay, but this has always been very close to their retirement (for example, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Robbie Rogers) or as they moved to lower profile leagues. Current English Football League referee, James Adcock, recently came out but remains one of the very few openly gay male football professionals, and the most high-profile gay male professional in the English game.

Perhaps a concern amongst those at the top of the game was illustrated by Justin Fashanu, who came out as gay in the English tabloid newspapers in 1990. Sadly, following his announcement, he experienced abuse from the terraces and found it difficult to be offered a contract from other clubs. In 1998, he tragically committed suicide.

The legal position

Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and so there are a number of legal claims that could arise in relation to homophobic treatment, including:

  • Direct discrimination – homophobic comments or negative treatment from teammates, coaches, members of staff or even third parties because of the complainant’s sexuality.
  • Harassment – unwanted conduct related to someone’s sexuality that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment would amount to unlawful harassment.
  • Victimisation – if a player was subjected to a detriment (for example, not being selected for a match) as a result of having raised an allegation of discrimination, then this would amount to victimisation.

Through vicarious liability, these claims can be brought against the club where the discriminatory act occurred in the course of the complainant’s employment.

These claims can also be raised against an association, a service provider such as the club’s shop, or even against the individuals themselves who made the discriminatory comments. Successful discrimination claims can result in uncapped damages and potential claims for personal injury, depending on the impact on the individual’s physical or mental health. However, given the relatively short playing career for most footballers, perhaps the challenge of continuing to play after bringing a claim deters most players from seeking protection through an employment tribunal.

Social media

Of course, there is also the impact of social media to consider. The vile racist abuse directed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka following their missed penalties for England in the Euro 2020 final is a sad reminder of the discriminatory prejudices that still exist amongst internet trolls. Given sexual orientation is easier to hide than race and gender, perhaps footballers are reticent to put themselves in the firing line of such prejudices, and understandably so.

Mr Cavallo received praise throughout the footballing community from fellow professionals. Cavallo hopes that by sharing who he is, he can show others who identify as LGBTQ+ that they are welcome in the football community. However, he will, undoubtedly, have also faced online abuse for his bravery. Olympic gold medallist diver Tom Daley recently highlighted in his autobiography the homophobic abuse that he received after finishing fourth in the 2016 Olympics, when a Christian group had tweeted him to suggest that he had not been as successful as he would have liked in the Olympics that year because of how he lived his personal life.

Without question, awareness, support, and inclusion are key to progress, and initiatives like football’s ‘Rainbow Laces’, where footballers wear rainbow-coloured laces to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community and encourage people to make their sports more inclusive, will help. Tottenham Hotspur FC, for one, lit up their stadium for their match against Brentford on 2 December 2021 with the rainbow flag to raise awareness of the campaign. However, more needs to be done to tackle the ingrained fear of abuse if more footballers are to come out.

Conclusion

Mr Cavallo’s bravery must be applauded but there is still a long way to go to remove homophobia from football. In particular, Mr Cavallo’s position as an openly gay footballer puts him in a difficult position for next year if Australia qualify and he is selected for the 2022 World Cup. This is being hosted in Qatar, where homosexuality is still illegal. How feasible change is within the dressing room and the game is only going to be made harder by the lack of inclusivity of some host nations. Mr Cavallo could be a trailblazer, but there may be some way to go before the ugliness of homophobia is removed from the beautiful game entirely.


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