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Hitzlsperger hopes his coming out will make it easier for other gay athletes

Thursday, January 9, 2014

BERLIN — Encouraged by others who have come out as gay, retired soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger is hoping going public will help make it easier for other sporting stars to do the same.

Homosexuality is seen as a major taboo in some sports, while not so much in others. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, both openly gay, are two of the greatest tennis players in history. But big-time professional soccer, and the four major sports in the United States, are quite a different story – at least for now.

Joerg Sarbach, APThomas Hitzlsperger

Joerg Sarbach, AP
Thomas Hitzlsperger

“(There is) a long way to go because we fear a reaction and we don’t know what will happen. I can’t imagine playing football and doing this at the same time,” Hitzlsperger said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Thursday.

Hitzlsperger, no longer active but still regarded as the biggest name in soccer to say he is gay, spent years playing professionally in England, Germany and Italy. He also represented Germany at the 2006 World Cup.

His decision to go public was hailed overwhelmingly as a positive step in the German media as well as in England, reflecting the way attitudes have changed.

British tabloid The Sun labeled him a “Winner” in a side-by-side cover photo with Manchester United defender Chris Smalling, who was called the “Loser” for wearing an outfit resembling a suicide bomber for a costume party.

In Germany, Hitzlsperger has been commended for his courage. The country’s mass circulation daily Bild led with “Respect!” on its front page, a day after Hitzlsperger made his announcement in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit.

“Hopefully, by talking about it, it encourages some others, because they see they can still be professional football players, they can play at the highest level, and be gay,” Hitzlsperger said in a video on his website. “It’s not a contradiction, as I’ve proved.”

Using anti-gay slurs and jokes on the sports field has been widely accepted as part of playing hard for years, so much so that in 1999 former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler made lewd anti-gay gestures during a game toward Graeme Le Saux, who was playing for Chelsea. Le Saux, who is straight, was labeled a homosexual by many simply because he used to read the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

On Thursday, in the wake of Hitzlsperger’s announcement, Fowler took to Twitter to express regret and apologize for his actions of nearly 15 years ago.

“Getting a bit of stick for something that happened when I was a kid, naive and immature..I’ve apologized to @graemelesaux14, he accepted,” wrote Fowler, who has retired from soccer and become a television commentator. “Obviously embarrassed looking back, but sadly cannot change what happened, you learn from mistakes growing up, and that I have.”

Jason Collins, a former NBA player, came out last year and was regarded as the first active openly gay player in one of the big American sports. Like Hitz lsperger, Collins’ announcement was met mainly with praise, rather than abuse.

Arjen Robben, the Dutchman who was a key player in leading the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 2010, downplayed stereotypes that athletes are scared to come out because they fear reprisals from teammates in the locker room.

“He’s gay, and?” Robben said at a Bayern Munich practice session in Doha, Qatar. “I think it’s quite normal and natural. I can also say here, I’m heterosexual. I don’t see a problem.”

FIFA, the governing body of soccer around the world, acknowledged that there is still work to be done within the game itself.

“Unfortunately, prejudices still exist within football,” FIFA said in a statement. “FIFA is working hard to tackle these and hopes Thomas’s statements will encourage greater respect and understanding in football and beyond.”

Last February, American player Robbie Rogers declared he was gay as he announced his retirement. Rogers, now 26, ha s returned to action with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Former English player Justin Fashanu, who played for Norwich and Nottingham Forest, was the first soccer player to say openly that he was gay, in 1990. He committed suicide eight years later at age 37. Swedish defender Anton Hysen came out in 2011.

“I don’t know if football is such a homophobic environment. People just speculate this would be the case,” Hitzlsperger told the BBC. “Since we haven’t seen a gay footballer in the Premier League or the Bundesliga, it’s hard to say that this would happen. We would have to wait and see.”

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30 more reader comments:

  1. I think it will…

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 10:51pm
  2. Hopefully it will be easier for others to come out but this guy retired before he came out! Ironic! Congrats though!

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 10:53pm
  3. The winds of change are turning our way.

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 10:58pm
  4. I hope it makes it easier on gay athletes.

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 10:58pm
  5. Good for him luck sod got to look a fit lads get changed and take showers

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 10:58pm
  6. Did you really just write that? Does anyone understand this gibberish? What are you saying?

    Replied on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:01pm
  7. Just saw it on TV they said there will allways be fans who go mad about it which is one reason that some wont come out.

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:01pm
  8. Who cares he gay wot now he is bad and crap grow up

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:04pm
  9. It would make it easier on gay athletes if gay athletes didn’t wait until they weren’t gay athletes anymore before coming out!

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:14pm
  10. While I applaud and admire Mr. Hitzlpserger for his coming out, I agree. It would be most helpful if they did so when they are active athletes. But, who knows the pressures an openly-gay athlete would face. Professional sports is still very homophobic and not gay-friendly. The fans are even worse.

    Replied on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:40pm
  11. I agree. While coming out can sorta be seen as brave- coming out while one has even more to risk would defintiely be seen as brave. I imagine it's a pocketbook issue. Hard to say- I came out 30 years agfo at 17. And at that time I felt I had lots to risk- yet still did it. Couldn't imagine living any other truth, frankly.

    Replied on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 9:57am
  12. We all hope to specially for other football players

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:18pm
  13. Bring ‘em on!

    Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 11:30pm
  14. Get in line buddy – there’s still several athletes and athletic administration that would prefer they don’t come out.

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 12:16am
  15. If more were to come out while playing, the pressures would be lessened. For every 12-man football team, the statistics say one is gay. That’s 20 per league. Each team actually has usually double or triple that on the 1st team, before 2nd team, under 21s, women’s teams… to say nothing of the 6,000+ gay fans at a 60k seater stadium. So what if people prefer gays didn’t come out? Should that stop us?

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 12:20am
  16. I agree Megan Radclyffe..it’s always after their careers are no longer in jeopardy. I’d like to see some ‘balls’ (pun intended) and have them come out while at the height of their career.

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 12:25am
  17. Ass

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 1:17am
  18. Sadly the German people are still fascist and running amok ‘cuz of this.. There’s also now a petition to ban homosexual topics in schools and it already has 80.000 signs..I’m again ashamed to say that I’m German..

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 1:22am
  19. It’s difficult for a gay athlete at any point, give him his credit due!

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 1:33am
  20. He’s retired now says a lot :-(

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 2:06am
  21. Doubt it

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 2:11am
  22. I am proud of this young man…and he’s adorable too!

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 3:18am
  23. he is so hot!!!

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 3:32am
  24. who ?

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 6:07am
  25. well, its his life and destiny, and hope it forefills his dreams.

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 6:36am
  26. Honesty is always the best policy! Love this this guy for being true to himself…..

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 7:08am
  27. Varied comments and opinions which I respect.
    As a lifelong football fan who actually goes to Premier League games and an out lesbian, I have over many seasons felt saddened the support still uses GAY as a derogatory term
    EG when Nasri moved to Man City a selection of fans delighted in making up a chant comparing him to a lesbian! doh!!
    He’s a footballer who saw a better deal in a better side, surely that’s market forces?
    Coming out is an individual choice
    As the song says (Makelmore and Lewis: Same Love)
    ” can’t change even if I wanted to, even if I tried”
    What can change is the negativity of football authorities, fellow pro’s and fans who still see sexuality as their business

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 8:03am
  28. and he was on the title of many newspapers yesterday in Germany with the headline “respect” – an awesome response!

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 10:10am
  29. Super Er Gemacht —

    Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 1:54pm
  30. Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014 at 2:49pm