Why is it important for a club captain to vocally support social campaigns for the rights of marginalized groups? Why is it important for any celebrity to “speak out” on an issue? Well it isn’t really.
But the fact remains that they have a platform at their disposal, and a weirdly disproportionate influence on impressionable, young followers. And when many of these followers happen to be young football fans raised in a sports culture entrenched with misogyny, homophobia and racism (except when Black players or Muslim players are scoring goals for your side), it seems as though every opportunity to influence them to fight these tendencies is a valuable one.
Jordan Henderson expressed support for the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign this past weekend, an initiative that supports Stonewall. His rainbow-coloured captain’s armband was accompanied by a broad message of solidarity on Twitter.
He then went a step further and responded to Keith, a Liverpool fan who commented about having struggled against prejudice, with a heartfelt message saying, among other things, that everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club.
You’ll never walk alone Keith. If wearing the #RainbowLaces armband helps even just one person then it’s progress. Everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club. Hope you enjoyed the game tonight. #YNWA https://t.co/TfIhASribZ— Jordan Henderson (@JHenderson) December 6, 2020
The gesture comes at a time when Mara Gomez recently became the first transgender woman to play professional football, representing Argentinian side Villa San Carlos. The news was met with a flurry of vile, and bigoted responses from football fans on social media, particularly Twitter where tribalism emboldens such tendencies.
Wikipedia lists only three English footballers, and one German footballer who played in the Premier League, to have come out. The first professional footballer to come out as gay was Justin Fashanu, who faced not only homophobic but also racist abuse, and eventually committed suicide (owing to a number of reasons, but the abuse he faced was a likely contributor).
And while studies indicate that there is now near-unanimous acceptance of openly gay teammates among footballers, the fan bases present a more chequered picture. Clubs like Brighton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton and West Ham have all investigated incidents of homophobic abuse by fans in the past year. At the same time, a representative of Brighton’s LGBT+ supporters group Proud Seagulls said in an interview, “Across (the league) we are seeing an increase in fans reporting their own fans for discrimination. Whereas before it would hardly happen.”
And okay that’s nice, but for every message of solidarity, there are five hateful tweet responses (no stat here, just linguistic flourish), and it’s laughable to hear people say things like “the game’s come a long way, and we’ve made progress”. Incremental progress in 2020 is simply not enough.
Anyway, to wrap that up, let’s thank the stars for Jordan Henderson. Great guy, good captain, not a homophobe.