Croatian Soccer Official Apologizes for Anti-Gay Remark
The president of the Croatian Football Federation issued an apology for having told a newspaper that he would "certainly" not permit a gay player on the Croatian national team.
Vlatko Markovic made his remark in the course of an interview published Nov. 7 in Croatian newspaper Vecernji List. A few days later, on Nov. 10, Markovic tendered his apologies, in the wake of an outcry that included the threat of legal action from two GLBT equality groups, a Nov. 10 Associated Press article said.
In addition to telling the newspaper that he would not allow a gay player onto the national team, Markovic went on to suggest that homosexuality is a pathological condition. When asked whether he knew of any gay professional soccer players, Markovic replied, "No. Fortunately, only healthy people play football."
GLBT advocacy organizations Kontra and Iskorak said that they intended to file complaints with Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) about the remarks. The groups also claimed that the comments were "discriminatory" and in violation of the law. A complaint to UEFA could result in a fine or suspension for Markovic, according to media reports.
Such penalties for soccer officials espousing anti-gay sentiment have been handed down before, the AP article said. In 2007, Otto Baric was hit with a fine by UEFA for an anti-gay comment he made in a 2004 interview. Baric, who was at the time the coach for the Croatian team, declared, "there is no place for homosexuals in my team. Homosexuality is not good."
Markovic said in a statement that appeared on the website for the soccer federation that his earlier comments had been "clumsy," and said, "It was not my intention whatsoever to insult or hurt anyone." Added the official, "I have nothing against members of any minority, least of all against those of same-sex orientation," Markovic said in a statement on the Croatia soccer federation’s website. "Once again, I apologize to all those who were hurt."
The world of sports has shown glimmers of shedding what some say is institutionalized homophobia, but challenges remain. Earlier this year, a public service video against homophobia lost the participation of star athletes, and the launch of the completed video was delayed by the U.K.’s soccer authority, the Football Association. British GLBT equality advocate Peter Tatchell, excoriated the decision in a press release last February, declaring, "While the FA and other national football associations have long challenged racism, the video is the first high-profile attempt to give homophobia the red card. A world first for football, its [timely release] would have given the FA huge prestige; stamping its mark as a trail-blazing organization that is leading the world in making football welcoming and safe for gay players, fans and officials."
The ad showed a man behaving in every-day life the way that soccer fans sometimes conduct themselves at matches, with a man hurling homophobic slurs at a newspaper vendor, a man on the subway, and office colleagues, calling them "queer scum," "ass bandit," and "faggot," among other epithets. The ad asked why behavior that is plainly not acceptable on the street or in a professional environment should be tolerated in the stands.
"I suspect the real reason for the deferment is that when top FA officials saw the video they felt uneasy over its visceral homophobic language, even though this abuse is intended to expose and shame bigots," Tatchell said in the release. "They lacked the confidence to defend the video they commissioned, in the same way they have often failed to robustly condemn homophobia on the pitch."
Even in the breach, the video sparked debate about anti-gay slurs and homophobic attitudes among soccer fans and among the athletes themselves. SoccerAmericaDaily reported in a Feb. 12 article that U.K. newspaper The Guardian carried an op-ed by Patrick Barkham declaring that, "While English football’s administrators dither, homophobia endures in the modern game. The stadiums may be plusher than ever but they still reverberate to offensive anti-gay chants, and homophobic ’banter’ is widespread in dressing rooms."
SoccerAmericaDaily noted that there are an estimated 4,000 pro soccer players currently active in England and Wales, but that none of them have come out of the closet. But the only gay soccer pros that have publicly disclosed their sexuality have done so after retiring from the game--a trend that reflects how American athletes, whether in football, baseball, or basketball, approach the issue.
One exception is Cardiff Blues rugby player Gareth Thomas, who came out as gay late last year, setting off a media frenzy. In the midst of the shockwaves that Thomas’ coming out generated, British publicist Max Clifford said that U.K. sports has plenty of homosexuals on the pitch, but that fans are still not ready to accept that pro athletes can also be gay. Clifford said that he had advised two gay athletes to stay in the closet because coming out would be harmful to their careers.
Clifford’s view would seem to be the received wisdom: the delayed video ended up following an everyman, but was initially meant to feature pro soccer stars stepping up to the camera to denounced homophobia. The problem was that none of the athletes wanted to be involved with a "gay video," and so the project was re-imagined, according to a Feb. 12 ESPN article.
Gays and Sports in the States
Burke was supportive of his gay son all along, his paternal affection not wavering when Brendan came out last year. Only a short time after coming out, Brendan Burke died in a car accident that took place last February 5 on an icy stretch of Indiana highway. Brian Burke stood strong for GLBT equality in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, telling the media that, "I don’t have to take anything back," because he had never attempted to inculcate his children with a belief that there anything pathological or immoral about homosexuality.
A Nov. 27 Toronto Sun article posted at 24 Hours Vancouver cited Brendan Burke’s story, and went on to quote Maple Leafs psychologist and consultant Paul Dennis, who offered an optimistic prognosis on the status of tolerance among the ranks of pro athletes. "If a player today wanted to be open about it, I would encourage it," Dennis told the Toronto Sun
"If a person chose to disclose [his homosexuality], a team would be supportive in today’s society," added Dennis, who also is a university professor of advanced sports psychology. "I think it would be good for the player and good for society. Twenty years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said that."
The article noted the seeming disparity between a growing acceptance of gays in mainstream culture and the stereotype of a reflexive homophobia in the sports world. But that stereotype may be falling out of sync with locker room reality. "There are very few [gay athletes] who are open," Dennis noted. "It has to do with the stereotype that athletes are obsessive with their virility, hard-nosed. People portray athletes as having this macho image. It really isn’t true. I’ve come across many who are incredibly tolerant, liberal and understanding. But for whatever [reason], they don’t want to disclose [their true sexuality]."
The article notes that statistically speaking, hundreds of gay players would be expected to be part of the ranks of thousands of pro athletes, though only a very few--such as Australian gold medal-winning diver Matthew Mitcham--are open about it. "But the next time [a pro baseball, hockey, or basketball player] declares they are gay, it will be the first time," the article notes, going on to cite instances in which players have gone out of their way to assert their heterosexual credentials.
"I do think sports is changing even though there really isn’t evidence of that because players aren’t coming forward on a regular basis," Dennis told the Toronto Sun. "But just from my years of involvement with hockey, I believe people are more understanding and accommodating."
The real problem, Dennis speculated, is not what a gay player’s teammates might say or do, but how the fans, the press, and the general public might react to an openly gay player. The article referenced Canadian gold medal swimming champ Mark Tewksbury, who came out after his Olympic victory and went on to become an author and motivational speaker.
"I won an Olympic medal but even that made me feel like a fraud because inside I didn’t feel like the boy next door that everybody thought I was," Tewksbury told an interviewer a few years ago. "I was full of fears about what would happen if people found out. What would they say."
"People shouldn’t have to feel pressured and they shouldn’t have to hold in things like being gay, but outside the team there remains the possibility of that kind of abuse," Dennis explained.
But fans may well take their cues from their sports heroes, and if pro players start to emerge from the closet the culture among fans may change. Though gay players remain closeted, some indications have already appeared that support exists among gay-friendly pro athletes. Last year, NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo, linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, and New Orleans Saints’ defensive captain Scott Fujita both spoke out in the media on behalf of same-sex families seeking marital rights.
Ayanbadejo, in an April 23, 2009, op-ed published at the Huffington Post, wrote, "If Britney Spears can party it up in Vegas with one of her boys and go get married on a whim and annul her marriage the next day, why can’t a loving same sex couple tie the knot? How could our society grant more rights to a heterosexual one night stand wedding in Vegas than a gay couple that has been together for 3, 5, 10 years of true love?"
Predicted the player, "I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else."
Fujita, referring to Ayanbadejo’s comments, was quoted in a Sept. 29 article at The Nation as saying, "I hope he’s right in his prediction, and I hope even more that it doesn’t take that long. People could look at this issue without blinders on... the blinders imposed by their church, their parents, their friends or, in our case, their coaches and locker rooms."
Added Fujita, "I wish they would realize that it’s not a religion issue. It’s not a government issue. It’s not even a gay/straight issue or a question of your manhood. It’s a human issue. And until more people see that, we’re stuck arguing with people who don’t have an argument."