Flemmings’ ban a step in the right direction

Flemmings’ ban a step in the right direction

Morning all. So, the annual silly season that is football’s transfer deadline day has come and gone. From an Arsenal perspective it was a pretty positive final 24 hours all things considered. We managed to get the unwanted Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi out on loan, which in turn freed up enough space in the squad and money in the bank to sign Atletico Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey for €50m. On the downside, we didn’t manage to find a buyer for Sead Kolasinac, Sokratis or Shkodran Mustafi, meaning we still have about nine million defenders (of questionable quality) on the books. And the shadow of the Mesut Ozil-shaped elephant – or should I say dinosaur? – still looms large around London Colney. But I guess you can’t have everything.

Obviously, the arrival of Partey is huge news for the club. We had been tracking the Ghanaian’s progress for at least the last couple of years and, given the paucity of options available to Mikel Arteta in that part of the pitch, it feels like a big coup. He is one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe and, at 27-years-old, he should in theory be entering the prime of his career. Credit should go both to Technical Director Edu for making the deal happen under considerable pressure and to owners KSE, who came good on their promise to back Arteta in the transfer window. Apparently Atletico weren’t ecstatic about the way in which we did business on the day – going straight to La Liga without forewarning them – but to be honest I couldn’t care less. Football is a cut-throat business, even more so when it comes to transfers, and if we felt that we needed to be a tad aggressive to get the deal over the line, then so be it.

Instead of adding to the multitude of articles analyzing Partey’s potential impact, however, I want to talk today about a bigger issue within the football – and indeed sporting – world. Last week the San Diego Loyals, who play in the second-tier USL in the US, forfeited a game after walking off the pitch when their midfielder Collin Martin received homophobic abuse from an opponent. The offending player, Phoenix Rising’s Junior Flemmings, was subsequently given a six-game ban by the USL and has been put on indefinite leave for the remainder of his contract.

Homophobia is a huge issue in football, particularly on the men’s side of the game. According to a 2017 study by analytics firm Gallup, 3.9% of adult American men identify as gay, bisexual or transgender. But Martin is the only openly gay male footballer playing in the country today. In the UK, there are none. It is probably true that gay men are less likely to gravitate towards football as a career given the prejudices prevalent in the game, but the numbers would suggest that there are dozens – if not hundreds – of gay professionals plying their trade around the world who are actively hiding their sexuality.

Their reasons for not coming out are entirely understandable. In 1990 British player Justin Fashanu, who was gay and also black, took the leap by coming out. The abuse he received was so vicious that he committed suicide just eight years later. Why would anyone want to take that risk? Although wider society, with gay marriage and LGBT parades, has certainly moved on from the 90s when it comes to acceptance, the same cannot be said of football.

Anyone who has been to a football stadium on match day will know that homosexuality it is completely outlawed. Players are regularly subjected to verbal homosexual abuse from opposing fans, even if they are not gay. Former England international Graeme Le Saux, who is married (to a woman) with children, was brought to the verge of retirement following the backlash he received for “gay” hobbies like antique collecting. Arsenal great Sol Campbell, who is also in a heterosexual relationship, has been the subject of constant rumours and taunts just because of certain mannerisms that are associated with homosexuality.

In that context, how would an openly gay footballer would be treated? There would be constant abuse during matches and, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle of the 21st century, further bigotry online. If you just want to play and make the most out of your football career, why would you subject yourself to such insults? The mental energy spent blocking out such treatment would be better invested on the pitch. Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger came out in 2014 once he had already retired from playing – it’s not hard to see why.

Clearly, however, this should not be the model that the game aspires to. I am not gay, and so I have no idea what it feels like to have to hide my sexual orientation. But it must be awful to feel obliged to conceal a vital party of your identity just to be accepted in your chosen profession. With acts of solidarity like taking the knee and sterner punishments for offenders, football is finally starting to take the necessary measures to kick racism out of the game. The repercussions for homophobic abuse should be no different. Flemmings’ punishment is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Fans and players should be banned for life, and teammates – like those of Collin Martin at San Diego – should not hesitate to walk off the pitch mid-match.

Meanwhile we, as fans of the sport and part of the wider football community, can play our part by keeping the conversation going and making it clear that we don’t condone such behaviour. Alongside educational campaigns, abusers will then start to change their ways and realize that such activity has no place in society, let alone on in a football stadium. Only then will people involved in the game feel safe to come out.

There is a long way to go. Homophobia is so entrenched in football’s culture that it cannot be simply eradicated overnight. But kudos to Martin and the guys at the San Diego Loyals for taking a stand. Hopefully more will follow their lead in the months and years to come.

Right, I think I’ll leave it there for today. Have yourselves a good Wednesday and I’ll be back here on Friday.