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Gay athletes out of closet but prejudice lingers

JASON-COLLINSPARIS, France, April 30 – US basketball player Jason Collins joins a growing list of athletes to publicly declare their homosexuality but fear and suspicion remain, notably in the “world game” of football, about gay players, despite changing social attitudes and initiatives to combat homophobia.

Collins, 34, made the announcement on Monday in an article on Sports Illustrated magazine’s website, making him the first active player in the top-flight NBA to reveal that he is gay.

His decision to go public in a country where attitudes towards homosexuality differ markedly from state to state won wide-ranging support, from fellow players and the league itself to President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton.

But the initial reaction was not overwhelmingly positive, with one US television analyst asked to comment on Monday denouncing homosexuality as a “sin”. A number of American Football stars were also critical.

Such attitudes suggest a reason why many athletes prefer to remain in the closet until their playing days are over, even though gay players are commonplace in a number of sports, particularly women’s tennis and golf.

John Amaechi, a British former NBA player who came out after his retirement in 2007, accepted that Collins was taking a risk.

“The sports world is populated by dinosaurs, people who have a hard time getting their mind around having a women in the boardroom, people who have a hard time believing that black people should be managers of football teams,” he told BBC television in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

“Why on earth would a gay person on a team not absolutely freak these people out? These people are so far behind the sentiment of society, whether you are talking about America or here (in Britain).”

But he added: “Jason has come along at just the right time to capture the Zeitgeist.”

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Why there are no openly gay high-profile players in the world’s most popular sport, football, has been a recurring question for many years.

“Unfortunately homophobia among fans, stewards and players remains a serious problem in football and while that’s the case it’s likely that gay players will remain unwilling to be open about their whole lives,” Andy Wasley, from gay rights group Stonewall, told AFP in emailed comments in London.

No active player has come out in England since Justin Fashanu, who suffered years of abuse throughout his career in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The former Norwich City and Nottingham Forest forward — England’s first black player to command a £1 million transfer fee — committed suicide in 1998.

This month, Brighton and Hove Albion fans, based in the English south coast city which has a sizeable gay population, complained they have suffered homophobic abuse by two-thirds of away supporters this season.

Supporters of Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg said last December that any gay players were “unworthy of our great city” and demanded both they and non-white footballers were excluded from the team.

Former Leeds United winger Robbie Rodgers, who came out earlier this year, said football’s macho culture makes it impossible for gay players to stay in the sport once they have revealed their sexuality.

Nevertheless, efforts are being made, with groups like Football v Homophobia, which campaigns against discrimination at grassroots level, endorsed by the English Football Association.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also said that gay footballers “have nothing to fear” while Bayern Munich star Mario Gomez has said the sport’s “last taboo” should be broken.

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For Stonewall’s Wasley, eradicating homophobia is in the game’s wider interest.

“People perform better when they can be themselves, so it’s in football’s interest that it faces up to its problem with homophobia and workshard to tackle it,” he said.

Like others before him, Collins and others who may follow his example could find that sexuality is largely irrelevant and what still matters most is sporting performance.

Former Wales rugby union star Gareth Thomas, who announced he was gay in 2009, has said that as in other walks of life, ability is everything.

“I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player,” he told the Daily Mail newspaper. “I am a rugby player, first and foremost I am a man.”

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