In the aftermath of the World Cup, one controversial news story in particular caught my eye. Michael Becker, the agent of Michael Ballack (the German captain, who was notably absent from the tournament after breaking his leg in a warm-up game), allegedly gave an interview to the magazine Der Spiegel in which he claimed several members of the German World Cup squad were gay.
Now the question I have to ask is: Is this really newsworthy? Is this something sports fans, and real sports journalists, should really be interested in?
No, and yes.
No, because this has absolutely nothing to do with sports. Someone’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with their skills and athletic ability on the field. Trying to turn this into news simply turns news into gossip.
As a real fan, I don’t care what race or religion those who play for my club are, so why should I mind if they are gay? I will support the team regardless of who it is made up of.
If pushed to set any requirements, first and foremost I want them to be great players who can work together and win lots and lots of trophies. Second to that I’d rather they weren’t doing anything illegal (either breaking the rules of the game or the laws of the land) and were reasonably friendly and down to earth. Thirdly, I would like them to entertain me a little and at least look like they’re enjoying themselves while doing a job that millions of us would kill for.
Sexual orientation has nothing to do with a person’s physiology and won’t make them a worse (or better) athlete. It also doesn’t make you a cheat or a criminal, or in fact make you any different in any other way. But, ironically, that is exactly why this sort of story matters.
It is a particularly difficult statistic to measure, but the proportion of people who identify with being gay, lesbian or bisexual seems to be around 4 percent. Using this we can estimate how many players in different sports are likely to have one of these sexual orientations. For example, in the NFL there are up to 100 players in each team and 32 professional teams. We might therefore expect around 100 current players to be gay, but the reality seems very different. A basic search throws up just three people, none of whom are current players.
And this is not just a quirk of American football. There seem to be only about a hundred professional athletes who admit to belonging to one of these groups out of the tens of thousands of sportsmen and sportswomen around the globe. Of these, many came out only after retirement.
When Lewis Hamilton became the first black driver in the history of F1, there was nowhere to hide. Even before driving a single lap in anger there was phenomenal media attention on him, enough pressure to make many people crumble. Pioneering black athletes, people like Lewis and Tiger Woods before him, never had anywhere to hide–the color of their skin is there for all to see. They simply had to overcome any prejudices, and in doing so have cleared the way for others to follow.
The situation is different for gay players, partly because they can actually hide this part of their identity. Faced with the possibility of career threatening prejudices from within and the inevitable media feeding frenzy from outside, any athlete to become one of the first to openly admit they are gay from a big team in a major sport would need nerves of steel. When anyone’s personal life is dragged through the press, it must be tough for them to stay focused on work. For an athlete it is doubly difficult, because this creates a feedback loop where a drop in form due to this distraction only serves to intensify the media pressure.
People’s prejudices come to the fore when things are going badly, not because they are valid, but because in these situations it is always easier to find a scapegoat than to solve the real problems. Any bigoted opinions of the existence of a gay player in a team could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the player, and thus the team, struggle under the weight of the attention, it would suddenly seem that they are a divisive and destructive presence.
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution. Some players are probably going to have to take it upon their shoulders to endure all this and lead the way–to inspire others that they are free to be honest and to overcome prejudices so that this career path is open to absolutely anyone with the right skills and athletic ability.