Friday, March 29, 2013

One of them must be…

I wrote this in February, when Robbie Rogers first posted his resignation from football. It was not clear at that point whether or not he meant to come back to the game, or his motives for stepping away. The Guardian has since published this honest, and difficult, interview with him, by Donald McRae. It's seriously worth reading. It makes me happy and sad simultaneously - happy because Rogers sounds like he is a man at peace with himself, and able to put 'the shit' in perspective; sad because his references to 'the shit' show just how far the beautiful game has to go.

That interview included this section, which was the main motivation for posting the article below:

He becomes thoughtful when asked if he knows any gay footballers. "No. Even now, one of my best friends said: 'Do we know anyone else in football who could possibly be gay?' And we couldn't think of anyone. We're such great actors because we're afraid to let people know who we are. We've been trained by our agents how to do interviews, how to present ourselves. No footballer has since said to me, 'Robbie, thank you, I'm gay too…' I don't know if anyone will."

On 15 February 2013, US men’s international footballer Robbie Rogers came out, and declared he would ‘step away’ from football, in the same blogpost. He wrote eloquently about the problems that secrets can cause, finishing “My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended”.

My reaction to that was, naturally, ‘bloody well done’, which seems to be shared (alleluia) by the majority of people reacting to his declaration. Former USMNT colleagues such as Stuart Holden and Sacha Kljestan amongst others have already made their support clear (good men).

A quick run-through some other names – depressingly quick, perhaps. David Testo, who came out in 2011, said that his teammates and club had known he was gay, and they had accepted that. Marcus Urban left football in 1991 because he “chose life”. Thomas Berling retired in 2000 after coming out. Anton Hysen came out in 2011, and still plays, in the Swedish third division (and has since won the Swedish equivalent of Dancing with the Stars, which is rather adorable). And Justin Fashanu

One thing that comes up a lot when homosexuality in football is discussed. That there must be at least one gay player in the Premiership. 

One of them must be. I mean, statistically speaking.


The UK census does not include a question on orientation, so estimating the number of gay people in the population at large is a bit tricky – the song says ‘one in ten’, the government apparently works on the basis of 5-7%, the ONS reckoned 1.5% in 2010 on the basis of a sample of 450.000 (per the article) or 247.632 (per the backing data article – very confused), and a British Crime Survey pre-dating the ONS survey 2.2%. The ONS sample – whichever one is correct – is large in ‘polling’ terms (voting intention surveys are routinely between 1-2,000 people) but the articles don’t show margin of error or details of how the sample group were chosen.

So who knows, frankly, how many gay (I use that term deliberately for the full range of non-heterosexual sexual orientations because, well, it’s a nice word) people are kicking around in a total population for England and Wales of (ONS again, after the 2011 census) approximately 56.1 million people, approximately 27.5 million of whom are men.

Some maths. Two calculations seem important here – not just the incidence of not being straight (INBS) in the general population, but also the incidence of being a footballer (IBAF) in the general population. That general population being reduced to just the men, but not further for age-groups etc because, frankly, that’s too getting too involved. Also, it's not clear how many professional footballers there are in England and Wales - the PFA membership is around 4,000 (per wiki), but they cannot confirm exact numbers for currently playing professionals as these are held by the Premiership/League, and there are also fully professional clubs in the Conference - so that's probably a high number.

If we calculate the IBAF on these two estimations as 4,000/27.500.000, we get c.0.014% of the male population who are professional footballers. But the smaller the incidence rate, the bigger impact even a tiny margin of error can have. We’re looking for a (taking a cautious approach) c.1.5% minority in a c.0.014% minority, which on a basic multiplication works out as c.0.00022% (and that ‘c.’ is getting larger as the percentage gets smaller).

But random distribution is not an even distribution; randomness creates clusters, even without any human factors. 0.00022% is just what you get multiplying the IBNS by the IBAF, without any randomness.

And then there are the ‘human factors’ – professional footballers are a self-selecting group. Nobody appears out of nowhere as a top-flight footballer; the preparation for that starts in childhood, and kids can be cruel. Any perceived difference can be targeted, and the school changing room can be one of the worst places for this. A single-sex environment involving nudity and ‘banter’ can be pretty uncomfortable whatever, but if you are of a different orientation, or unsure, then that’s going to be even worse. Gay kids – or suspected-to-be-gay kids – are at risk of specific bullying (on top of the general kind), which could contribute to a drop-out rate either through outright exclusion (“we don’t want xxxxx on our team, he’s a woofter”) or self-protection (“I’m less likely to get shit if I join science club”).

To go alongside that negative reducer, there might also be a positive one – people bang on about heteronormative wotsits a lot, but there are some homonormative ones as well. A gay kid trying to be ‘a good gay’ might just buy the ‘gays don’t play football*’ line, and think they should be doing something else instead. God bless Gareth Thomas for preferring rugby to musical theatre.

This isn’t a random sample of 4.000 people in the population, remember, it’s a group defined by a common background and very specific skillset. Simply taking the INBS on that is to take a number based on an error-prone calculation without account of random distribution or any contextualising human factors.

So – there are no out Premiership footballers, but a general expectation that there must be at least a few who are in. Maybe there are, maybe there aren’t. None are out. That expectation is therefore a bit problematic – a diversion from the real issue. Because it’s not like there’s a theoretical gay manager with a stack of gay envelopes each with a gay name in and we all get to play ‘guess’ and see who’s right at the end of the season. Because football is about more than the Premiership, and more than the League.

For every person making this decision, it’s a personal decision. If somebody decides to stay in, then that's their call - but if they decide to stay in because the alternative seems too damn nasty, that doesn’t reflect well on the rest of us. It is for football in general (and the related cross-section of society, media, and market that involves) to address homophobia so that decision can be taken for personal reasons, without such fear. Whether Robbie Rogers is stepping back for a while to take stock and try something else, or will never go back to football, it’s his call, and I wish him all the best.

Check out the Football v Homophobia campaign for details of events, resources and links.

*This is all specific to men's football, as a number of factors affect the situation re: women's football, where there are openly gay players.  

With thanks to Ally Fogg for the read-over. All errors my own, etc and so on.