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Dr Jamie Cleland. Photo by Andrew Weekes Photography.

Football fans’ attitude to gay players has changed dramatically, according to Loughborough study

The attitude of football fans towards the presence of gay players has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, according to a Loughborough University academic.

Dr Jamie Cleland’s research has revealed that 93 per cent of fans say that a player’s on-field performance, not his sexuality, is the most important thing to them.

And that shows just one example of a cultural shift in attitudes since Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 and was ostracised by former team-mates, fans, the media and even his own brother John.

Dr Cleland has done three studies into homosexuality in football: (1) an analysis of 3,500 fans’ views towards the presence of gay footballers with Professor Ellis Cashmore of Staffordshire University; (2) an analysis of 2,500 posts surrounding homosexuality on fan message boards; (3) an analysis of the print media’s reaction to Anton Hysén coming out in March 2011. 

“The conclusion from all three studies is that the environment in football is a lot more inclusive towards sexuality than is being reported,” said Dr Cleland, a lecturer in criminology in the Department of Social Sciences.

“It’s changed dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, but there is always a vocal minority - and they are very vocal.”

Dr Cleland’s research comes in a week when Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson backed calls for professional clubs to do more to combat homophobia.

His study was prompted initially by the Football Association’s decision to drop an anti-homophobia campaign in 2010 because football was ‘not ready’ for such a campaign.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, said ‘the time would be more appropriate when crowds were a bit more civilised’. And PR guru Max Clifford claimed he had advised two Premier League players from coming out as ‘football remained in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia.’

Dr Cleland felt this stigmatised fans unfairly and he wanted to assess the fans’ feelings towards gay players. The result was three separate studies, the latest one called ‘Discussing homosexuality on association football fan message boards: A changing cultural context’, which has just been published online in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport.

Dr Cleland said: “When I analysed these online fan sites, someone would make a homophobic post and very quickly fans would jump on it. And they wouldn’t let it go.

“What struck me, looking across nearly fifty fan sites, is that fans are willing to self- police and challenge homophobic posts.

“Across my research I found that the majority of fans would support gay players. People said that when they took their car to the garage they didn’t ask about the sexuality of the mechanic.

“They said what Rooney and Ronaldo etc. get up to in their spare time is entirely up to them. The most important thing is what they do on the field.”

There is currently only one gay professional footballer playing the game, Anton Hysén, who plays for Swedish third division side Utsiktens BK, and Dr Cleland says the fans blame clubs and agents for a players’ reluctance to come out of the closet.

He said: “84 per cent felt there was pressure from other sources, like clubs and agents. Half blamed the agents.

“Clubs are very protective of their brand, and fans argue that clubs don’t want to be associated with a gay player.”

Dr Cleland says the representation of players like David Beckham in the media have helped changed attitudes from the 1980s when masculinity was defined by hard drinking, fighting and sexual conquests.

He added: “A lot of men now admire players like Beckham and Ronaldo who, to coin a media term, are metrosexual men. They are not afraid to be associated with some form of femininity.”

Dr Cleland believes football would benefit if a high profile Premier League player came out. He said: “Football needs to move with the times. We have an openly gay cricketer, Steven Davies, and a gay ex-rugby union/league player, Gareth Thomas, who was hugely respected.

“At some point we will see a gay footballer playing in the Premier League. And the sooner it happens the better.

“The media would clamour to interview him but it would die down and then football could move on.”

Dr Cleland’s three studies are:

Fans, homophobia and masculinities on association football: evidence of a more inclusive environment – by Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland. Published in the British Journal of Sociology 2012

Discussing homosexuality on association football fan message boards: A changing cultural context – by Jamie Cleland. Published online in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport 2013

Association football and the representation of homosexuality by the print media: A case study of Anton Hysen. Due to be published in the Journal of Homosexuality shortly.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 13/44

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the Best Student Experience in England every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 11 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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