Football and homophobia
– things may be a-changing, with the times

Marie Larneby
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Rory Magrath
Inclusive Masculinities in Contemporary Football: Men in the Beautiful Game
206 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities)
ISBN 978-1-138-65361-0

Football is a popular and culturally important sport, not only in the UK. Furthermore, professional football remains near-totally a male, and indeed, masculine endeavor. In addition, male football is heteromasculine. These claims form the basis from which this insightful research takes its leap.

In Inclusive Masculinities in Contemporary Football: Men in the Beautiful Game, Dr. Rory Magrath studies the construction of masculinity through the experiences of 60 semi-professional young male footballers in the UK, aged 16–21. They belong to the next generation of potential professional players and will undoubtedly impact football on and off the pitch. The main results indicate that these players do not align with the homophobic imprint of professional football in UK. In contrast, they adhere to a culture of inclusivity.

An intersection of football, masculinity and homophobia

How football came to be a multifaceted masculine arena and sociocultural site of influence for clubs, players and fans at all levels – and the media – is brilliantly summarized and analyzed in part two of the book. Football’s background as a site for constructing a certain kind of masculinity – orthodox heteromasculinity – led to a period of homophobia from the 1980s. Male football, until recently, is a sport with no openly gay players. Anton Hysén’s and Robbie Rogers’s coming out as homosexual was however met with extensive support by players and fans. Yet, the homophobic image still seems to prevail, with consequences such as gay male footballers staying closeted.

This background is important in order to understand the aim and results of the study, but also to understand the emerging body of research on inclusive masculinities. More specifically, Magrath examines attitudes towards homosexuality and sexual minorities; friendship and banter within the groups; and the nature of homosexually-themed language often used within the (male) football setting. Inclusive masculinity theory, which theorizes the rise of a softer attitude regarding inclusion of homosexual men, increased value of femininity, and acceptance of women, is used to analyze the players’ narratives. Magrath discusses how these footballers’ talk of masculinity and sexuality can be understood in a different way, compared to previous generations of male footballers.

Football as a site for homosocial bonding

Two Premier League football academies and one university football team participated in this study. Football academies are explained as “near-total institutions” in the Goffman sense, in that football is prioritized over all other factors; “exercise, diet and all aspects of social life are controlled and scrutinized within this environment” (p. 6). According to Magrath, players are protected by academy staff from outside influence, who often play and live within the academy from a young age. The university team had many former academy players which had failed to progress to the academy’s First Team. Hence, the majority of the 60 individually interviewed players had common backgrounds regarding football socialization. The main difference between academy and university players was their social context, which was not restricted for university players. Still, football was central in these players’ lives and their core socialization were with male players.

Support of gay players

A majority of the players claimed that they had no issues with homosexuality per se. A few referred to religious reasons to why they did not embrace homosexuality as normal, but stated, as all players, that they would not have problem with a gay teammate. Since none of the teams had experiences of gay teammates, several discussions were at a speculative level. However, as Magrath recurrently discusses, this is not perceived as a methodological problem. The positive and inclusive attitudes towards sexual minorities and gay teammates shall not be underestimated. This high level of support is described as “striking” (p. 112). It contrasts earlier homophobic attitudes and behavior within football, and many of the players expressed a clear resistance towards homophobia, explaining that it belonged to another generation.

Since the academy players lived in a ‘near-total institution’ and male homosocial milieu, their attitudes towards sexual minorities would reasonably be correlated with traditional homophobic notions and imprints of male football. However, their inclusive attitude indicated that the near-total institution of the academy was not immune from influences of the surrounding society and did not differ in that regard from the attitudes of the university players. Although academy players are “protected” from outside impressions, at least players in this study were susceptible to influences from the wider society that they adhered to as football players as well.

Gay, faggot and pretend fucking as friendship bonding – but still homophobic?

The use of banter and homosexually-themed language were present in all three groups. Expressions like “faggot” and “gay” and feigned sexual attraction for one another was common, as one player described: “there’s quite a lot of kissing and [pretend] fucking… this even happens in public” (p. 144). Words and actions like these were not used in a homophobic way but as a form of friendship bonding, although they knew it may be perceived as homophobic. Magrath thoroughly puts forth their claims how this paradoxical use of language and actions can be interpreted and legitimized in relation to the inclusive attitudes. These claims are reasonable when all nuances are shown, but at this point the (otherwise impeccable) analysis stops short; I expected more answers. This is one of few times when I wonder if Magrath has come “too close” to the players, and therefore can’t problematize potential consequences beyond the players’ explanations. If outsiders are not provided with Magrath’s thorough discussion, how can football get rid of its homophobic imprint? Although these players are inclusive and gay-friendly, how would an outsider know that? Hence, I want to know more about the intentions of such language and behavior. Why, if players know it may be perceived as homophobic, do they continue? Is it enough for the players to state that they know the intention? And if so, will football’s strong position within society legitimize this kind of language and behavior (and maybe be misinterpreted as homophobic)? The answers are likely to be found in football’s socialization and that stereotypes, prejudices and preconceptions are hard to change. I would have liked Magrath to provide this discussion and to analyze further the complex nuances of masculinity construction, the discrepancy between an emerging inclusive culture and the “old” exclusive culture, and football’s impact on culture and society.

Significant voices

In my opinion, the strength of this study is the qualitative approach, letting the players’ voices be heard. The shared experiences offer the reader a glance into the quite isolated milieu and the everyday life of football academies. The fact that a majority of the players share a common view contributes to the credibility of the results. Regarding credibility and generalizability, Magrath discusses this recurrently, for instance accusations from sociologists claiming that the footballers were “just telling you what you want to hear” (p. 175). This is always a pitfall for qualitative research; however, the strength of consistent narratives should not be neglected. Therefore, Magrath argues that the results must be taken seriously and that the players’ inclusive culture is consistent with findings from other football research.

Other masculinities and women

Limitations are always necessary and the well-defined scope of this study gets hold of in-depth experiences that has provided new knowledge. As Magrath mentions, the players’ personalized forms of masculinities are not studied, nor the relationships with women. These limitations are presented as directions for further research. Nonetheless I wished for a short – albeit speculative – reflection upon what the results may signify in relation to male footballers’ construction of masculinities, their attitudes on femininity and their relationships with women. For instance, will this culture of inclusivity also provide a more inclusive attitude towards female footballers – or is it solely for male players? Does it affect female footballers or not, and in what ways?

Read it!

As a former footballer and current sport scientist I appreciate this book for a number of reasons. It is an important work as it provides new ways to view, analyze and discuss contemporary male football – inside as well as outside of academia. We must be aware of and take into account the shifting (as well as prevailing) nature of masculinity constructions and power relations within male football.

Copyright © Marie Larneby 2017

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