Sport’s last taboo?

I’ve just been catching up with all the television I’ve missed recently, including a documentary from BBC One’s Inside Sport segment entitled ‘The Last Taboo’. The idea behind this programme was to examine the issue of sexuality in sport in general and football (soccer) in particular.

As you might know, I spend about half of my week as a sports journalist and the other half in university teaching and researching on issues relating to feminism, sport and popular culture, so was really looking forward to the show.

But I was disappointed. When a documentary voiceover begins by telling us as viewers that there are no out gay footballers anywhere in the world and what they actually mean is that there are no out gay male footballers anywhere in the world, we know what the focus is going to be.

Because women’s football has many players who are out and proud – Victoria Svensson, Natasha Kai, Jessica Landstrom to name a few. That’s not to say that there isn’t still homophobia, but the ways in which women’s football has created a world in which homosexuality is “acceptable” is surely worth analysis, if only for a comparison on how men’s football has failed, is failing and will continue to fail.

This documentary didn’t do it. While attempting to address issues of sexuality and diversity, its binary narrative, talking about “black, white, male, female” (all of which are apparently equally innate characteristics that cannot be disguised or hidden, unlike sexuality), demonstrated its reactionary roots.

Piara Power, director of Kick It Out (the campaign against prejudice and discrimination in English football), revealed that his organisation had been working with the FA on an anti-homophobia campaign. Anyone who follows KIO’s work will know that this was quietly put on the back burner some months ago. Power diplomatically said that this was because the FA wanted more time to work on their “strategy”.

I would hazard a guess that it was more like they are carefully judging their moment in a desperate attempt not to rock the boat too much. The FA, like any large organisation, can be somewhat slow-moving and loath to do anything too drastic of their own volition. After all, though KIO has had exceptional success in addressing the problems of racism in the game, the structures of football in England are still unequal. I’ve found this in my own research – the FA has committees of disabled supporters and gay supporters who report to them about issues directly to them, putting responsibility for dealing with issues firmly on those who are the victims of prejudice and discrimination. (Incidentally, their “women’s committee” deals with issues of women playing football rather than watching football, which may explain why sexist attitudes can still be found in male-dominated football grounds.)

A 35-minute programme is clearly not long enough to interrogate the multiplexity of factors that feed into the homophobia that can still be found in sport. But dealing with it on such a basic level simply raises many more questions than answers – and there is lots more about gender and sexuality in sport that needs to be said. Still, when TV commentators are finding hilarity in the surname of the Chile player Ponce (as they did last night), or laughing at (the straight) Gary Neville rewarding a team-mate with a kiss (as they did for several weeks last season), it shows that there is still a long way to go before the FA can be assured of a warm reception of its “strategy”.

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