An unhealthy stigma

On January 8, 2014, Thomas Hitzlsperger, a German professional soccer player, came out of the closet. He is not an active athlete, as he retired in September 2013. Despite being retired, Hitzlsperger is the highest profile soccer player, past or present, to come out as gay.

Hitzlsperger is not alone in the greater sports ambit. Recently, the likes of olympic swimmer Tom Daley and basketball player Jason Collins have spoken publicly about their sexuality. Collins publicly stated that he is gay while Daley said he was bisexual.

In all three of these recent cases, there has been large media coverage of each athlete’s sexuality. The coverage itself is where the problem lies.

A person’s sexuality, regardless of if they are an athlete or not, should not be a topic of debate or discussion.

The fact that Thomas Hitzlsperger is gay is none of my, or anyone’s concern. Sexuality should be a benign issue, yet anytime the topic rears its head in discussion, it is met with vitriol and abuse.

The real problem lies in the stigma attached to homosexuality, which is only intensified in the athletic sphere. The term “gay” is used as an insult by a shockingly large amount of people. By the term being used in an insulting context, it only increases the negative connotations attached to homosexuality in the public eye.

Sexuality is the last taboo that professional sports needs to break. Racial diversity is commonplace amongst every sport and incidences of racism, while still present, are on the decline. Fan violence, like racism, is still an issue, though compared to times past, it is rapidly disappearing. Homophobia, however, is as present as ever.

In 1990, Justin Fashanu, a deceased soccer player, came out as gay in an exclusive interview with The Sun. In 1998, Fashanu hanged himself. Abuse for his sexuality from people within soccer was cited as one of the main reasons for his suicide in the note he left behind.

He remains the only player to have come out of the closet during their career.

In the Premier League alone, there are 500 players, none of whom are openly gay.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 1.5 percent of adults in the United Kingdom identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

While this is not concrete proof that there are indeed players who remain in the closet in the Premier League, it does lead one to infer that some of that 1.5 percent must surely be professional athletes; if not in the Premier League, then elsewhere.

I hope there’s a day in the very near future when an active athlete, belonging to any sport, confronts the stigma of homosexuality.

Tom Daley has started to pave the way with his recent announcement, and I had hoped that more athletes would come forward. This has not been the case. For this stigma and this culture of homophobia to dissipate, people must confront it head on. The athletic world is crying out for a hero.