In an earlier post about gay athletes, I put forth the (unoriginal) idea that one of the primary reasons the closet is so pervasive in worldwide professional sports is because of the fans–specifically, opposition fans all too willing to abuse players in the most heinous of terms. On World Football Daily, there was something of a debate about this (subscription required.) The author of the WFD Kick About post wrote:
Now ask yourself if UEFA would force a club to play before an empty home stadium because the crowd chanted “faggot” or something to the like to a gay player–which is inevitability even if those same fans then go home to their gay sons and daughters.
There are some in the gay community who disagree with this sentiment (and there was disagreement registered to that author’s post.) But such disagreement is akin to burying one’s head in the sand and pretending that the taunts and the fans who chant them are the exception rather than the rule. That is a complete ignorance of fan culture. When the fan goes to the stadium, regardless of what he–or she–is like day-to-day, the fan forsakes individual rationality for a mob madness. And that madness can be deadly (see under Heysel.) The opposition team (and fans) are treated not as opponents, as enemies who must be vanquished. You have to protect your honor and attack them–get them where it hurts the most. Nick Hornby does a very good job of describing the madness in his memoir Fever Pitch. The madness is the reason why racist taunts are still so prevalent in world football despite near-universal horror at racism (outside of Eastern Europe.)
The gay athletes who have come out in the past decade or so have done so to generally positive reaction. Not just Saint Gareth, but also Anton Hysen, Steve Davies, Amalie Mauresmo, and a few others. This is far from the early 80’s when Martina came out and, despite being the best tennis player of her generation and all preceding ones, was instantly turned into the “evil, godless, Commie bull-dyke who was going steal your children.” Her bravery cost her potentially lucrative sponsorship deals.
Despite these gains and a generally better societal attitude toward gays and lesbians in general (Martina is now a near-universally beloved and respected icon), there are valid reasons so few athletes come out, and none in top professional leagues. Foremost among these reasons is the fans.
Which brings us to a particularly shameful incident out of Brazil. In a match between two volleyball sides, Volei Futuro and Sada Cruzeiro, 3,000 Cruzeiro fans (men, women, and children) mercilessly tormented Volei Futuro player Michael. The video at the link I provided (Outsports), shows fans clapping and chanting “Bicha!” (faggot) every time Michael serves the ball. Michael is gay, and he publicly came out following the match.
According to Outsports, this incident is receiving huge play and “the vast majority of people appalled at the actions of the fans. It has also opened a debate on gays in sports.” Michael’s teammates have rallied around him, and the volleyball world at large also seems to be appalled. It is heartening to see a positive and supportive reaction to fan negativity. Conversations about homophobia are also always good. Nevertheless, the larger problem–how to fix the homophobia–remains. Thus far it appears that banning fans from the next match is the strongest alternative.
There is another problem which has not yet been broached but looms very large. Volleyball has a devoted and passionate fan base worldwide, but the popularity of volleyball is nothing next to football, especially in Brazil. If this is the reaction of 3,000 fans in a minor sport, what would the reaction be to a gay player from the tens of thousands of Cruzeiro football fans? Would fans in Rio cheer for a gay player at the Maracanã?
This is not just a Brazil problem or football problem. What would be the fan reaction to a gay player at Old Trafford, the Camp Nou, or the San Siro? Or Cowboys Stadium, Fenway Park, or Madison Square Garden? To focus on the 3,000 Sada Cruzeiro fans evades the more important truth–homophobia is a problem of general fandom and not specific to any one team.
The only way to change the culture is to punish the fans where is really hurts. In fandom, trophies are everything. Sports governing bodies need to make sure that fans understand that collective behavior can impact their team’s trophy hunt. I’m talking about more than just playing before an empty stadium; I mean disqualifications and point deductions. Is it cruel? Is it unfair? Yes. But so are homophobia and racism. If we cannot stamp those evils out of society, then at least they should be controlled in sports. It’s the only way to soften the mob mentality.