Thomas Hitzlsperger: Hammering the Football Taboo

(Originally published in the Palatinate:

We have always been told that homosexuality is a taboo within professional sports, and it still is. Yet with the recent announcement by Thomas Hitzlsperger, this situation might begin to change.
The ex-Aston Villa and Germany midfielder has recently revealed that he is gay. Hitzlsperger, who is a Bundesliga winner and started the Euro 2008 final for his country, is certainly the most prominent footballer to come out yet.

Even in Germany, a country known for its tolerance, homosexuality in sport has been highly controversial. Phillipp Lahm, the captain of the German national team, has spoken against gay footballers coming out as recently as January 2012, claiming that “the football community is not ready to accept homosexuality as a normality”.

Yet the floods of support seem to indicate otherwise. Many of Hitzlsperger’s former colleagues, such as Arsenal star Lukas Podolski, have flocked the ‘twittersphere’ with messages of encouragement and congratulations.

Reinhard Rauball, the Bundesliga president who has previously made similar comments as Lahm, altered his position and called the revelation a “big and courageous step”, one that is “groundbreaking” in the fight against homophobia.

Even the German chancellor Angela Merkel has praised his actions. Similarly, he has received much support in England, where he was affectionately known as ‘Der Hammer’ and spent a large bulk of his career at Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton. Many leading sporting personalities and supporters, including Villa fan David Cameron, have praised him for his bravery.

Despite all these encouraging signs, homosexuality within professional sports, and particularly team sports like football, is often the unspeakable. Although sexual orientation does not affect playing ability whatsoever, gay footballers are extremely hesitant to come out when active. With a ‘lad’ culture prevalent in the changing rooms, there is clearly a fear that their career would be affected, if not terminated altogether.

The fact that Hitzlsperger and many others have to wait until their retirement to speak out is testament that homosexual players continue to feel severely pressured in their working environment.

The fierce polemic on the rights and wrongs of homosexuality has dominated and often skewed this debate. Hopefully, the enormous amount of goodwill and support Hitzlsperger has received for his revelation is evidence that our society as a whole is prepare to tackle and to provoke questions on the underlying prejudices and homophobia within professional sports, and especially in football.

In his interview, Hitzlsperger claimed that the purpose of his coming out is to “further the debate about homosexuality among sport professionals”. This is of paramount importance, as prejudices are not overcome by ignoring or avoiding the problem.

The issue of racism in sport was not abated by  discouraging players of other ethnicities from playing, in fact quite the opposite. Silence is the last thing we need to tackle phobias, and by speaking out and contributing constructively to the debate, Hitzlsperger has gallantly set us an example.

Tackling injustices will not be easy and for the foreseeable future professional sports will remain infested by many prejudices, not just homophobia. Sportspeople are still not free from the often abusive judgements that have no relation to their on-field performances. However, Hitzlsperger has provided us with a starting point to change this disappointingly prevalent culture, but much more action will be necessary.

Thomas Hitzlsperger will thereafter be known as the man who significantly advanced the discussion of homosexuality in professional sports. But it was his sexual orientation, and not his football résumé, that propelled him to wider fame: this is a sign that our society still has to a long way to go.