It has been widely reported in the media this month that Jake Daniels, player for English Championship team Blackpool, has become the UK’s first active male footballer to publicly come out as gay since 1990. Daniels described his decision as a “massive relief” and said that his team-mates were “so supportive”. The wider reaction to the news has been overwhelmingly positive, with figures such as Boris Johnson and Prince William showing support to the player.

However, Daniels says, “the subject of being gay, or bi or queer in men’s football is still a taboo. I think it comes down to how a lot of footballers want to be known for their masculinity”. But in 2022 in the UK diversity and inclusion are being prioritised by many individuals and organisations and the population is more open than ever before in moving away from stereotypes about sexuality and gender. So why is football lagging uncomfortably behind?

The sporting world notoriously involves “locker-room talk” and “banter” but where is the line?  What is acceptable? The overlap between the amateur and professional in the sporting world appear to have a part to play in blurring that line.

However, it is important to recognise that for professional players, their sport is their job, and the club that they play for is their employer.  In the employment context, locker-room banter could be seen as harassment for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 if it relates to sexual orientation (amongst other protected characteristics such as race and religion). Both the club and the individual players involved in the “banter” could be held liable for discrimination if this behaviour takes place.

Whether players are professional or amateur, the spotlight is now firmly on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the football industry more now than ever before.  Football (and other sports) clubs should therefore be thinking about:

  • Celebrating and encouraging openness amongst players (whilst recognising that being ‘out’ at work is a personal choice for the individual and it is nobody’s place to ‘out’ someone else);

  • Making allyship visible within the club;

  • Regular and compulsory club-wide training on LGBTQ+ topics such as gender identification, inclusive language, etc.;

  • Appointing senior members of the club to champion diversity and inclusion;

  • Communicating a zero-tolerance attitude towards homophobic, transphobic or any other discriminatory behaviour; and

  • Introducing internal mentoring schemes.

Where clubs are concerned that a negative or non-inclusive culture exists, or where they have received a complaint of discrimination, they need to consider whether they need to conduct an appropriate investigation to get to the bottom of the issues and take appropriate action.  Sometimes this will necessitate bringing in external investigators who are able to examine the issues and the evidence without fear or favour.

It has also recently been announced that the government will set up an independent football regulator following a review which found that this was essential to safeguard the future of the game in England. One of the recommendations that came out of this review was that equality, diversity and inclusion plans should be mandatory for all clubs. The government is due to publish its proposals for the new regulator in the summer. 

This is a positive step towards inclusion in the football industry, and we will certainly be spectating from the side-lines with interest, to see what effect the football regulator will have on the sport.  Until football players coming out as gay stop making headlines, can we really say that diversity and inclusion has been properly embedded in football?