Amaechi: British soccer players wary of coming out

Updated: April 29, 2013, 9:06 PM ET
Associated Press

LONDON -- The advice John Amaechi gave to Jason Collins before the NBA veteran came out is very different to what he tells the gay soccer players he knows in the English Premier League.

"The NBA is light years ahead of football," Amaechi said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "There is no doubt about that."

Amaechi became the first openly gay former NBA player in 2007, three years after retiring. In the month before his public announcement on Monday, Collins spoke to him about his decision.

"I told him there isn't anything negative about it," Amaechi said. "Being out is better than being in -- unreservedly."

In American sports maybe. But not in soccer -- particularly in England, according to Amaechi. Being an Englishman and one of the country's leading equality campaigners, he is qualified to offer his opinion.

"If it wanted to be a better, more progressive organization that supported diversity, not because it looks pretty when you put it on the back of your annual report ... it could be," Amaechi said. "It has the resources. It doesn't want to get rid of the dinosaur, so the dinosaurs continue to roar through the hallways of football, making sure that everyone knows how you have to behave.

"Let's face it. You are better off being the kind of football player who bites like a 5-year-old than a gay player in football. One would get you less ridicule from the powers that be. It's shocking to me."

Amaechi's comments allude to Liverpool forward Luis Suarez's bite a week ago, and they carry weight. He is the figurehead many gay soccer players in England are turning to for advice -- in private, afraid to become front-page news.

Justin Fashanu was the first leading British player to come out publicly, acknowledging he was gay in 1990. The former Nottingham Forest and Norwich City forward's life ended in 1998 at age 37 when he was found hanged in a London garage.

The next notable player to come out was Robbie Rogers, a former member of the U.S. national team who had been playing for Leeds. Aged only 25, he felt he had to retire at the same time he made his announcement in February.

Asked if any privately gay players had contacted him like Collins, Amaechi replied: "Yes, a few."

"There are plenty of them who are already out, who have come out to some of their teammates," he added. "But they just don't want (to in public). They don't have any faith in football to do its job, to do its duty."

Fans of the second-tier English club Brighton recently published a dossier highlighting the constant homophobic abuse they face at matches. The southern city is known for its gay and lesbian community.

Faced with hostile crowds and the macho world of locker rooms, players are reluctant to come out. Amaechi said the gay players he knows can be more open at home.

"They are out in the way that most people are out, in that people they love and that people who care about them know that they are gay," Amaechi said. "But random strangers don't know that they are gay. It is quite a huge expectation that you put on people, you expect them essentially to wear a T-shirt that says `By the way I'm gay' every day.

"There is something I can tell you from experience quite weird about it."

In response to Amaechi's criticism, the English Football Association defended its vigor in tackling homophobia, pointing to its "Opening Doors and Joining In" campaign that marked its first anniversary earlier this month with an event at the House of Commons.

"Opening Doors has received positive feedback inside Westminster and from the likes of Stonewall FC, the country's first ever gay football club, while both Graeme Le Saux and West Ham's Matt Jarvis have lent their support to The FA's work in this area," FA spokesman Scott Field said.

Le Saux is a former English national team defender who faced abuse during his career over baseless claims about his sexuality.

Jarvis, who is heterosexual and married, posed topless on the cover of a gay magazine recently in a bid show support for the gay community.

Amaechi stresses the need to move away from preconceptions.

"In Britain is the idea that real men -- straight men -- don't read books, must whistle at women and objectify them and all kinds of crazy stuff that is not particularly helpful," he said.

He offers a note of caution about the prospect of current players emulating Collins' public announcement.

"With football, they've got so far to go," he said. "That's almost a bridge too far."


Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

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