Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's Time to Come Out

Two recent events have drawn my attention to the issues of sexual orientation, soccer, and the need for a modern day Jackie Robinson, not only in soccer but in all of men's sports.

I tend to think of soccer's culture, as it has grown in this country in the past two decades, as residing primarily among the white and upper middle class. While soccer was at one time largely the bastion of immigrants here, its recent explosion is no doubt due to suburban parents and players. From my interaction with coaches, players, parents, and fans, I regard soccer followers as tolerant folk.

In doing so I forget soccer's roots as the World's game, played by the lower and lower middle class, as a means of entertainment and escape (from reality and, occasionally, from their circumstances). While I've declined in other posts to expound on the nature of sport as a substitute for combat or the hunt, it is undeniable that, in many other parts of the world, sport in general and soccer in particular are still viewed as somewhat gladiatorial.

This attitude is reflected by the attitudes towards, or restrictions placed on, women's soccer teams in many parts of the world, particularly in predominantly Islamic countries. While these restrictions are purportedly based on Sharia law, they are certainly reflective, I believe, of the attitudes of those nations and cultures with regard to women and their place not only in sport but in society. And certainly the same issues are being fought out in broader society in non-Islamic nations as well.

Lest we consider the "West" more enlightened, however, recent developments in Germany and England and less recently in Brazil all indicate differently, at least where sexual orientation is concerned.

Last week, as a parting plea upon his departure as president of the German Football Association ("DFB"), Theo Zwanziger called for gay players "to have the courage to declare themselves." Zwanziger cited German politician Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin, as an example of how a public figure acknowledging his or her own homosexuality can contribute towards making public acceptance of various sexual orientations more likely.

In response, Philipp Lahm, the captain of the German national team, described Zwanziger's plea as unrealistic. "Football is like being the gladiators in the old times," Lahm was quoted as saying. "The politicians can come out these days, for sure, but they don't have to play in front of 60,000 people every week."

Zwanziger, describing Lahm as a tolerant person, said that he wouldn't criticize Lahm for his views. But while they may be realistic, they certainly aren't brave.

Also last week, news came that Blackburn Rovers were contemplating a bid for a Brazilian midfielder named Richarlyson. A midfielder and defender who has had a successful club career and won two caps for his national team, Richarlyson would seem to be the type of player in whom the big clubs of Europe would have an interest.


But for the fact that he was publicly identified as gay, he might well have been. Richarlyson's outing (if it can be called that -- he has apparently neither admitted nor denied publicly that he is gay) occurred when the coach of a rival team "accidentally" identified Richarlyson as the player in Brazil's top division who was rumored to be gay.

It got worse for Richarlyson when, after suing the coach for defamation, the presiding judge dismissed the lawsuit, reportedly on the grounds that soccer is a "virile masculine sport and not a homosexual one." The judge went so far as to suggest that because of his assumed sexual orientation "Richarlyson should be forever banished by FIFA and never be allowed to play football again".

The decision was appealed and Richarlyson's lawyers were quoted as saying that they would sue the judge as well but, although these incidents occurred in 2007, there is nothing on the internet (at least in English) to indicate that the judge was disciplined or a civil lawsuit was instituted against him. Not surprisingly, Richarlyson's professional career has not benefited from the controversy -- he transferred in 2010 from one of the biggest clubs in Brazil, Sao Paulo, and after two appearance with the national team in 2008 has not had another cap.

While I understand Lahm's position that a professional player would risk derision from fans and players if he were to come out, I can't help but think of the parallels between gay athletes today and those who fifty years ago broke the color barrier in professional sports in this country. The notion that the first "big name" professional athlete to declare his homosexuality would face more vitriol than Jackie Robinson or Emlen Tunnell is, I believe, false.

It will no doubt take a player with the courage of his convictions, a thick skin, and athletic talent to be the first to break the orientation barrier, just as it did for football and baseball here. But once that barrier is broken, the benefits to other gay players, and ultimately to society, are immense.

Sports allow, even require, fans in particular and citizens in general to reevaluate their attitudes and prejudices towards certain groups. While the differences between the races are hardly resolved here, the fact that we have had in the past two years a national championship football team from the Deep South with a black quarterback and, in the past four, a black president, have to be accounted for, at least in part, by pioneer athletes who endured the threats and chants of those who were opposed to them solely because of the color of their skin a half century ago.

In the same way I believe that the first internationally recognized soccer player who steps up the the microphone and declares his sexuality will lead to the second, then the third, then many more. And he will no doubt have to endure years, perhaps a lifetime, of bigoted songs from the terraces (perhaps even those of his own club), physical threats, and the cold shoulder from some teammates. But the volume and ferocity of those chants and threats will lessen over time, and lessen with each additional player who comes out.

And when they do, when some day an admittedly gay player captains a World Cup squad or a Champions' League finalist, then everyone will have to acknowledge, on one level or another, that homosexual soccer players (or baseball players, or football players) can be just as skilled, just as committed, just as much a member of the team, as any heterosexual player.

Soccer needs its Jackie Robinson. He's out there somewhere. It's time for him to step forward.

We're waiting.

Monday, January 9, 2012

When Enough Is Enough

Now that my coaching days are over, I've spent more time over the past two months being a fan - of music, of American football, but most of all of soccer and Blackburn Rovers.

These are not good times if you're a Rovers fan. In fact, they may well be the worst of times. For while I and many of my fellow supporters with whom I commiserate (or, to put it more accurately, whose commiserations I read on our list-serve without comment these days) have lived through the dark days of relegation and far too many inept players and managers in the past, we always had hope. Now, we have none.

That hope was provided by two means: first, strong, ambitious ownership provided by local-boy-made good steel magnate Jack Walker; and, second, dedicated, knowledgeable decision-making from the front office, led by long-time Rovers' employee John Williams.

A statute of Jack Walker outside Ewood Park in Blackburn.

Walker's love for Rovers was clear from the millions of pounds that he spent turning the club from a Second Division afterthought into the Premier League Champions. It was not a love shared by his family, however. After Walker died in 2000, his holdings, including the Rovers, were put in a family trust. For a time the trust operated Rovers with parsimonious oversight but not neglect, allowing Williams, who began working for the club in the 1990s and rose to the rank of Chairman, to spend enough money to keep Rovers afloat.

Eventually Walker's heirs tired of the drain on their fortune that Rovers created and sought a new owner for the club. After several false starts and many rumored interests, finally a buyer was found: Venky's. I knew nothing of the company at the time but learned that it is based in India, began as a poultry company, and is privately held, owned by a family named Rao. Several fans expressed concerns about Venky's true intentions for the club from the start (sell off all the "assets"? treat it as their play toy like some Indian version of the Beverly Hillbillies?) but I put it down to the "glass half-empty" nature of most Rovers fans, or, to be honest, perhaps a touch of bigotry.

There is no doubt, however, that Venky's ownership of Rovers has been an unmitigated public relations disaster. Soon after taking over they fired manager Sam Allardyce, claiming that he lacked the ambition that Venky's had for the club. While many Rovers' fans (me included) were dissatisfied with Allardyce's boring tactics we were comfortable Big Sam's ability to keep Rovers in the Premier League.

In his place Venky's appointed Steve Kean, the club's first team coach, as the new manager. Kean expressed what was apparently the requisite ambition for Rovers -- attractive soccer, a top five finish, and challenging for the championship. But he had no real managerial experience before taking the job and his ambitions seemed completely out of touch with small town football in the toughest league in the World. Kean's reign has been marked by last minute collapses, poor tactical decisions, and, perhaps most galling, toadying to Venky's (including frequent command performances in India at a time when he should be devoting his energies to his club).

Kean's summons to India are indicative of Venky's management style, which appears to be to trust the counsel of those who tell them what they want to hear and ignore those who don't. Particularly troubling is the relationship of Venky's to player agent Jerome Anderson, who, despite his fervent denials, seems to have considerable influence with the owners in player and managerial decisions (he represents Kean and his son is on the Rovers' roster).

Even more troubling than Allardyce's dismissal was Williams' departure soon after. While managers always come and go, especially at smaller clubs like Rovers who tend to either lose the successful ones to bigger clubs or fire the unsuccessful ones when at the brink of relegation, the chairman is hopefully the constant -- the one person in whom power lies who can be expected to do what is in the best interests of the club, not him or her self. Williams was certainly that person for Rovers.

Matters off the pitch reached a fever pitch this past week as Kean accused a growingly vocal majority of Rovers' supports calling for his (and Venky's) ouster of essentially not being "true" fans. This apparent effort by two Johnny-come-latelies to take it upon themselves to define who is or is not a "fan" follows on the heels of previous attempts to censor fan's statements about the club (under the disingenuous guise of safety concerns) by prohibiting anti-Kean banners at Ewood Park.

The beliefs of many supporters regarding Venky's ineptitude was confirmed earlier this week with the belated release of a letter that was sent by Williams and two other then-Board members noted that they were being by-passed and ignored regarding the most fundamental decisions made at the club: "We now find ... that the board are not even being consulted on some of the most fundamental decisions this or any other football club ever makes. This includes the termination of the manager's employment and the appointment of a new manager."

Venky's and Kean's actions and statements have sparked a discussion among Rovers' fans regarding what it means to be a fan and, when matters of The Club and Our Club collide, how a true fan should act.

This is, admittedly, an easier call for me to make than that of those who were born in Blackburn, or near there. Many figuratively bleed Blue and White and some, literally, will be buried in the Blue and White halves. The Club has been "theirs" for thirty, forty, fifty, or more years. They are season ticket holders who have invested their lives in the club.

But, simply put, it is no longer their club. It is Venky's, and they have made that very clear with everything they have done since they bought the club.

While fans are relatively powerless these days in the face of billionaire owners, multi-millionaire players, and millionaire agents, they do have one chit left. And that is the ultimate one. To not willingly pay one penny (pence?) to further the interests of those owners, players, and agents.

If they have already purchased their season tickets for 2011-12 I encourage them to attend the matches, root for the Rovers, cheer every goal, boo or whistle at every appearance by Kean, and hope for the best. But don't buy a pie or a pint or a shirt on the grounds. Do not give Venky's one more penny.

As for me, I laugh at the emails that I get from Rovers telling me about the latest sale at the club's on-line shop and scoff at the invitations to sign up for internet access to match commentary and video highlights. For now, I'll just have to console myself with my Tugay Rovers' shirt and my tape of the 2002 League Cup triumph over Spurs.

For me, enough is enough.