Di Cunningham from Proud Canaries joins us on the 20th anniversary of Justin Fashanu's death to ask; what's wrong with football, that two decades on no other elite footballer has come out?
What’s wrong with Football? It’s the anniversary of Justin Fashanu’s death and 20 years on he’s still the only elite footballer to have come out.
Although Justin Fashanu – scorer of that goal v Liverpool and the first £1M black footballer - didn’t come out publicly as gay while at the early peak of his career at boyhood club Norwich City – it’s understood that staff and teammates were supportive.
His sexuality wasn’t an issue until his record breaking transfer to Nottingham Forest where he was subject to homophobic abuse, not least from manager Brian Clough. From then on Justin became a journeyman – playing in the kits of an astonishing 22 clubs in his career (not including his England under 21 appearances, where he notched an impressive 5 goals in 11 games).
His playing prowess never again reached the stellar levels of the days at Carrow Road; a key contributor undoubtedly a lack of respect from coaches and peers at sequential clubs for his openness about who he was and whom he chose to love. Stonewall research shows that workers in an environment that supports them to be their authentic selves out-perform those who feel pressured to remain closeted.
Accounts of Justin’s bullying have been retold recently by brother John and ally Leroy Rosenior. The suspicion is that dressing room culture may not have changed overly at some clubs since and that this is a significant factor in the reluctance of gay players to come out.
Another concern must be the prospect of homophobic abuse from fans, home and away, on the pitch and online. In the absence of a strong line from game’s guardians to address this systematically, LGBT+ supporters themselves have taken on homophobes and trolls – with groups at clubs around the country asking fellow fans to ally up and challenge abuse in stadia if they feel safe to do so with Pride in Football’s #CallitOut campaign. A simple “We’re better than that” or ‘Show Some Respect or even (via West Ham’s Pride of Irons away at the Amex) “Yes, actually my boyfriend does know I’m here”. Justin, who played for West Ham from 1989-90, would have liked that.
Promotion of of diversity and inclusion at clubs can’t just be left to fans. It’s the responsibility of the FA and the Leagues to ensure that values are systematically embedded in club policies (including HR) and seen to be followed through with.
At my own club – Justin’s club – Norwich City, there’s been an organisation wide review of inclusive practice and an overt commitment made to combat prejudice and engender respect for difference.
Gareth Thomas, the out gay rugby star was invited to meet with senior and under 23 players, the academy curriculum addresses equality and rights, the club champion the LGBT+ supporter group Proud Canaries, support the City’s Pride celebration and recently, along with sponsors Aviva, launched Proud Canaries FC as part of the NCFC family. Only one other club in the country has taken that step; Charlton Athletic with their fostering of Charlton Invicta. The two teams will meet in the inaugural Proud Canaries Cup taking place at Carrow Road this Saturday (see below).
When Thomas Hitzlsperger came out, then Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy testified to the open mindedness evident at the club and suggested players elsewhere who shun acceptance take a hard look at themselves. In succeeding years Norwich City players have regularly worn Football V Homophobia Training Ts and topped the table in the league of Stonewall Rainbow Laces wearers (dozens of players have worn them over the 3 seasons and favourite of fans and players alike Wes Hoolahan was still wearing his in January, three months later).
These are excellent examples of forward thinking approaches. But while some clubs forge ahead others leave abusive behaviour as unchallenged as it was for Fashanu back in the 80s and 90s.
These days no player spends an entire career in one place. Indeed there’s little stability for players in terms of place of work. Moves to other clubs on loan or by contract can be very swift. Currently there’s no guarantee that every club in the country can signal by their policies, procedures and staff conduct that a gay player would be welcome and safe.
Far-reaching changes are needed throughout the game in the name of Fashanu if the picture is to look any more progressive on the 21st anniversary of his death.
DON'T MISS - Proud Canaries FC will have at least two teams in the innaugral 'Proud Canaries Cup competition' this Saturday (5 May) at Carrow Road.
Come and support the boys and girls as they play on the Carrow Road pitch against other LGBT+ teams including Birmingham Blaze, London Titans and Charlton Invicta. There is FREE ENTRY for all fans.
Out gay ref Ryan Atkin and Amal Fashanu will launch the tournament at 4pm and there will be drinks and a buffet at the Top of the Terrace from 7pm.