THIS, then, is how a capitalist society works: A useful wicketkeeper-batsman, who has played one-day cricket for England, publicly reveals he is gay, no doubt after a great deal of personal agonising. And within 48 hours, William Hill starts taking bets on when a Premier League footballer will come out.
The battle between morality and money, it turns out, is no contest. Surrey cricketer Steve Davies’ coming out is not, as he and we may have thought foolishly, a brave step by a professional sportsman to be true to himself, and one which might, as a by-product, help tackle the taboo of homophobia in sport.
Nope. It’s a chance for a bookie to make a bit of cash.
By the law of averages, there must be gay players in the Premier League. Perhaps, in the light of Davies’ declaration of his sexuality on Monday, which followed the coming out of rugby player Gareth Thomas in December 2009, one or two footballers may have wondered if the time was right to tell the world that they are gay.
Well, as those players agonise over the consequences of coming out of the closet, they can reassure themselves that some idiot with a betting slip will be getting all excited at the possibility of seeing their £10 stake pay up at 7-2.
Not that I have any room to criticise, really. I’ve worked in at least two newspaper offices where there has been a Celebrity Death Pool. For those of you don’t know, it works like a sweepstake: At the start of a calendar year, everybody puts in a certain amount of money – say, £1 – and then gets a name from a list of well-known figures. If your celebrity is then the first one from the list to die that year, you get all the money in the pot.
Morally, that’s no better than what William Hill are up to, is it? In fact, you could argue that it’s far, far worse.
Celebrity deaths, though, are not a taboo. Even if all newspaper offices agreed that Celebrity Death Pools were a terrible thing and should be banned immediately, it wouldn’t stop famous people dying.
What William Hill have done, though, in their own petty little chase to squeeze a little extra money out of their gullible punters, may just have made it more difficult for a footballer to come out. A very difficult decision for a professional sportsman has been reduced to a gambling opportunity. Never mind that some player or other has struggled to keep their sexuality a secret for years, and is considering taking the risk of going public. It’s just a laugh, isn’t it?
There was a conference on Homophobia In Football at the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale last week. The timing turned out to be somewhat unfortunate, as it was held on the same night that Manchester City were playing Aris Salonika in the Europa League, which I suspect may have kept some of football’s more open-minded fans from attending.
Had the conference been held this week, rather than a few days before Davies came out, I suspect it would have received a great deal more attention.
As it was, former footballers Andy Hinchcliffe and Earl Barrett – two of the game’s more intelligent and articulate ex-pros – spent the evening discussing the impact of homophobic abuse in the sport with a selected panel drawn from the worlds of football and equality campaigning.
I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak to Barrett about the conference. (Lucky because he is a busy man. In addition to working full-time for the football equality campaigning body Kick It Out, he coaches the Under-14s at Stoke City’s academy and is a fitness adviser for a dating website run by his wife Keely. I’m still amazed he was able to answer the phone when I called him.)
His hope was that the conference would at least get people talking about homophobia in football. It is only once you acknowledge it is there that you can begin to tackle it.
“The game has made progress in terms of tackling racism,” Barrett said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, if someone was giving out racial abuse, the rest of the crowd would join in. These days, if it happened, the crowd would help to get them thrown out.
“When I started playing, the issue was racism. Now we’re in the same place with homophobia. But if we can get people talking about the issues around homophobia, then we can start to tackle it.”
Barrett can well understand why a gay footballer would find it difficult to come out. The only player who has ever done so was Justin Fashanu, who received a shocking lack of support and understanding from within the game. The tragedy of his story, which ending with him committing suicide in 1998, is well known.
“I never knew of any gay footballers when I played,” said Barrett, who made his name at Oldham in the early 1990s. “But for gay sportspeople, the difficult decision is in deciding to go public.
“If the perceive that things will be worse for them if they come out, then they are going to worry about it. This is why it’s a subject that needs to be talked about.”
Thanks to Davies, homosexuality and homophobia in sport are being talked about a little more this week. In the meantime, I might go and check out the odds of an apology from William Hill.