Collin Martin’s coming out shows football’s slowly maturing landscape

Words by David Mooney Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 2, 2018

Draped in a rainbow flag and alongside the hashtag #SoccerForAll, Collin Martin made himself one of the better-known MLS players on Friday afternoon. While most football fans without an active interest in the sport Stateside were making jokes about what to do with themselves while the World Cup in Russia was on its first rest day, the Minnesota United midfielder came out as gay publicly on his Twitter feed.

Writing about the club’s Pride night, near the end of Pride month, he said: “I want to thank my teammates for their unconditional support for who I am…I want to take this moment to encourage others who play sports professionally or otherwise to have confidence that sport will welcome them wholeheartedly.”

It was a landmark announcement and the reaction has generally been positive – nothing more than any reasonable person should expect in 2018. However, Martin is the only openly gay player in a top-level league across so many footballing nations in the men’s game. That makes his coming out both incredibly brave and another very important step towards creating a sport where athletes feel comfortable being open about their lives.

It’s also important to note that this is NOT a column about encouraging other gay footballers to go public nor is it asking where they all are in 2018. People who are LGBT have to come out to complete strangers pretty much on a daily basis – they have to make choices about being themselves in public to protect themselves and anybody who has never had to make one of those choices will find it difficult to fully comprehend both the thought-process and why it needs to be done.

Martin has come out in an arena where a lot of fans hold a lot of privilege – often a combination of white, male, straight privilege – and living with those benefits makes it almost impossible to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t. When LGBT people come out, they make calculations about how it could go wrong, which people they could lose from their lives, what they’d do if the worst came to the worst – calculations that most people never have to make.

Of course, the thinkpieces asking “where are all the gay footballers?” are well-meaning, but it’s worth remembering that that level of attention could also be keeping players in the closet. Being LGBT in 2018 in many places across the world is easier than it’s ever been, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy – and people are still entitled to privacy.I am… I want to take this moment to encourage others who play sports professionally or otherwise to have confidence that sport will welcome them wholeheartedly.”

That’s why Robbie Rogers, the last openly gay high-profile active footballer the men’s game has seen, originally felt he needed to retire to be himself. Following his release from Leeds United in February 2013, the American posted about his sexuality on his personal blog, adding that he was giving up the sport – at the age of 25.

He later explained his decision to retire was because he wanted to avoid what he called “the circus” that he expected to follow him – extra scrutiny over his performances from both media and fans, and the extra pressure he’d feel during matches. Take a moment to think about what that says about the culture football has created and then take another to consider it in the context of how LGBT people live their lives on a daily basis.

Rogers tentatively came out of retirement back in his home country, joining LA Galaxy in the MLS a few months down the line, having trained with the team as what had been termed a “special guest”.

This shines a light on Martin’s decision to come out publicly while at his club and while fully involved in first team matters. It’s another step on the road towards a more accepting environment that a top level player feels comfortable, safe and, most importantly, supported enough to be able to deal with the extra pressure that comes with the announcement.

It’s worth remembering how Justin Fashanu was treated following his coming out in 1990 and the damaging effect that almost undoubtedly had on others who were in a similar position. Fashanu took his own life after an allegation of sexual assault, writing in his suicide note that the encounter was consensual – but he feared he wouldn’t get a fair trial and had already been presumed guilty. He made that judgement after years of smears in the press and homophobic abuse in life and on the pitch.

Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger was only able to come out following his retirement, going public with the news in 2014 after hanging up his boots the year before.

Of course, the MLS isn’t the Premier League. It’s not the Bundesliga. It’s not Serie A. It’s not any of the European leagues that get the most attention in the game, but it’s unfair to dismiss it as irrelevant and unimportant in this case – especially as it’s growing as a franchise and as soccer becomes more popular with American audiences.

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In coming out, Martin isn’t revealing his sexuality to an insignificant number of people. He’s 23, still heading towards the prime of his career, and he’s been open about one of the most personal parts of his life on a huge stage. As a message to younger people in the world who are still trying to work out who they are, it couldn’t be better. As a message to young LGBT people in sport, it’s another in a growing list of positives.

Even as a message to the homophobes that like to kid themselves into thinking they’re not homophobes – the sort who say “I’ve no problem with gay people, but why do they have to announce it and shove it down our throats all the time? I don’t care who has sex with who.” – it’s fantastic. It’s a no nonsense, no fuss announcement, backed up by swathes of teammates, rivals, clubs, and fans showing just how proud they are of him for taking such a daunting decision.

The football landscape is changing, albeit in baby steps, and Martin’s coming out proves that. The role that the Minnesota United midfielder played in going public on Friday shouldn’t be undersold.

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