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Can MLS Teach Europe About Dealing With Homophobia?

While North America's soccer scene has made great strides in equality in 2012, Europe seems to consistently lack behind. Is 2013 the year that MLS's stand is strong enough for the other side of the Pond to notice?

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She can play, all right. But will Europe play along with the acceptance beat?
She can play, all right. But will Europe play along with the acceptance beat?
Christian Petersen

Despite the superiority of the game in Europe, the game of football there seems to be woefully out of touch with mainstream European society. Grotesque incidents of racism like the one that caused Kevin-Prince Boateng and his AC Milan colleagues to walk away from a friendly match, and homophobia like the call by some Zenit St. Petersburg supporters for an "all white, non-gay" team are liberally peppered within the game there, the frequency of which could be considered shocking by North American standards -- and there seems to be nothing that officials can or will do about it. But there is hope: where Europe has fallen behind, North America has seized the moral high ground on this matter -- and in turn, can show the birthplace of the game a thing or two.

In a recent piece published in the British alternative football blog In Bed With Maradona, author Matt Phil Carver cites a quote by Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard:

"We are midway through the 2012/2013 football season and the fight to eradicate homophobia from the game has recently taken a few steps forward. (Lindegaard) wrote on his Betfair blog that he feels football fans are "stuck in a time of intolerance" when it comes to the game’s supposedly ultimate taboo, and must work to align themselves with the more liberal and tolerant world around them. Coming from such a high-profile player, this simple statement is in itself a notable development – it’s not that Lindegaard’s fellow players disagree, it’s that they don’t say anything at all".

Lindegaard's words aren't far from the truth. Other than the public comings out of Justin Fashanu in the late 90s and recently Anton Hysen; along with the support of allies like Joey Barton and West Ham's Matt Jarvis, along with teams like Liverpool and their recent attendance at that city's Pride Parade, there aren't many European footballers or teams (especially in the highest echelons of the game) that have come out in support. For every "hero" (as Lindegaard puts in his post) like Barton and Jarvis to try to push the game towards a more enlightened future, there are dozens of unrepentant Brian Cloughs calling potential Fashanus "poofters" or Luis Felipe Scolaris turning down English jobs using the flawed rationale that acceptance is a hinderance to success, and in the process helping to create a not so curious dichotomy.

It's a dichotomy which directly conflicts with the views of most North Americans, who despite recent political rumblings in Europe, still see that continent as a bastion of socially liberal attitudes. But curiously, the game seems to suffer in a time-warp: two years ago, an English FA attempt to produce an anti-homophobia video was shelved due to a lack of Premier League player support. And just last year, Liverpool supporters (yes, supporters of the very same LFC that was in the Liverpool Pride parade this year), decried Luis Suarez's ban for racist comments as an affront towards their goals of EPL success, rather than a necessary punishment of unacceptable attitudes. Other outside organizations, like the Justin Campaign, seem to have made little inroads in stomping out the problem.

(Meanwhile, Europe's mantle of progressive attitudes in sport has been taken by rugby union, with the likes of Nigel Owens, Gareth Thomas and the French Top 14 side Stade Francais leading the way -- even cricket, the most liberal of games, have an international level player in Steven Davies who has come out. But those are another story altogether.)

So while Europe's gay footballers continue to face massive challenges in the form of continuing inaction and intolerance, at the same time those struggles are starting to make MLS and the North American sporting scene look like a welcome and accepting paradise -- a fledgling one, mind you, but one from which Europe can still take a few pages.

North American sport has never been known to be a bastion of progressive politics, and perhaps never will -- and most of what Europeans see as North American boorishness could be stemmed from the image of a stereotypical male sports fan: loud, brash, beer-swilling and just plain ignorant. They're rude, crude and generally watch sports that are non-worldly in view. It's not a pretty picture when viewed from afar, one which may cloud some critical judgments on where lessons may be learned.

Why? Because the image of the North American sports fan may be changing, and recent developments are showing an acceptance level that hasn't been seen before. The recent furores over now-former Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar's homophobic writing in eyeblack, and Torii Hunter's claim that he would be uncomfortable playing next to a gay teammate, saw swift and decisive backlashes from both fans and management alike -- Escobar was suspended, and Hunter the subject of harsh responses in the public forum. These repercussions are at a level rarely seen in the past. Perhaps it is a credit to the boom of social media that is part of our current culture, but maybe it's just simply compared to European footballers, many pro athletes in North America are actually aware of their surroundings outside of sport, and do concern themselves with not being caught on the wrong side of public opinion.

The spark that lit that metaphorical powder keg is widely attributed to a landmark 2006 survey conducted by Sports Illustrated, in which it showed a majority of athlete respondents in all four of the Big Four pro leagues saying they would be accepting of fellow teammates being openly gay. Those results flew in the face of conventional wisdom, and North America has been chugging along since. And while a survey conducted in England showed similar attitudes within the footballing community (i.e., up to 90% of supporters say homophobia has no place in the stands) little headway has been made in terms of the FA, or the Premier League.

While there have been varying degrees of progress made in other leagues in the past six years, 2012 is perhaps a landmark year for soccer. In the last year alone, the progress made by the forces of acceptance made major inroads in the game, and took the driver's seat on the road towards an open and accepting environment. There was the coming out of former MLS and Montreal Impact player David Testo, and US Olympic women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who joined her fellow out teammate Lori Lindsey in the gold medal winning team. Here in Toronto, TFC became the second MLS team to get behind the You Can Play Project, a multi-sport initiative founded by the Burke family, with a multi-language video featuring many of its biggest stars -- including Torsten Frings.

However the most positive sign came from MLS and its' teams this past year; even if the 2012 season did start with a mis-step when the league announced a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America (which still has some issues with LGBT individuals being members), but then retracted it shortly afterward, without citing a reason (the furor over the BSA and its struggles no doubt a part of the decision, no matter how you argue it). Once that was out of the way the league showed its willingness to crack down on intolerance when it came down hard on Houston's Colin Clark by suspending him three games for a slur on a Seattle ball boy. Later in the season, in the middle of the playoffs no less, they also laid down the law on Seattle's Marc Burch with another 3 game suspension for a similar incident against a Real Salt Lake player -- but most tellingly, both of these suspensions were widely accepted as fair by supporters.

Meanwhile, a number of teams partnered with local Pride organizations and organized "Pride Nights" at league games (of which a number of them were against TFC.) It also partnered with the aforementioned You Can Play project. Even a simple pro-LGBT blog called Gay4Soccer was able to garner a list of over 100 names of players, bloggers, media types, supporters' groups and executives as "allies" against homophobia -- a list that include names like MLS stalwart Brian Ching, American national team stars Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, Canadian defender Will Johnson and 2012 MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski. The league also introduced the "Don't Cross The Line" campaign, of which the centrepiece was a video message from three of the league's marquee names Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman and Dwayne De Rosario condemning all the -isms and -phobias (Sexism, Racism, Homophobia). They may not be the most recognized names outside of the MLS, but it's still a massive step in the right direction.

But this progress hasn't just appeared magically, nor did it appear out of a sudden desire to be on par with public opinion. It is the fans themselves, or more specifically supporters groups from many of the leagues' teams, that have been the lightning rod for this change. Many of those who founded the groups have likely experienced first hand, or witnessed through other accounts, the level of intolerance and ignorance in European football stands. Seeing many of these as un-North American by modern standards, many of these pioneers have learned those lessons, and have actively attempted to steer their fledgling groups away from these behaviours. Take for example, the words from the website of Seattle's Emerald City Supporters:

Speech or conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive supporting environment for Sounders FC fans and supporters based on their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or transgender status, race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, national origin, or age will not be tolerated in the Supporters Section or at any ECS-sponsored events, and we actively discourage such language and behavior. Emerald City Supporters welcomes ALL Sounders FC fans.

The words are clear and concise, leaving no room for shades of grey between the black and the white. While such wording isn't found on the charters themselves, there is an unspoken decorum that has been ingrained into the supporter psyche, borne from these actions. And even though the ECS does operate in a more progressive city compared to most other MLS markets, the sentiments across the league's many supporters' groups are the same: when it comes to membership, all are welcome; race, religion, gender and orientation are a non-issue. Supporting is still the same as before -- disparage the opposition, cheer on the home team -- except there is a very careful eye and ear cast to seek out discriminatory banter, and those who offend are winnowed out. Of course no system is perfect, and there are the odd slip-ups -- but even if that happens, the league has shown decisive action, with policing for such behaviours strict and the punishments for the offenders swift.

2012 does mark a year where many battles in the war against intolerance within North American sport were won, with arguably the greatest prize of all being Rapinoe's and Lindsey's gold medals from London, which serves as one of the biggest poke in the eye so far on homophobes who insist that no openly gay or lesbian team athlete cannot be a distraction to his or her teammates. Some battles have yet to be won (such as having a male athlete come out during his active career), but they will be as the court of public opinion continues to shift towards a more accepting society in 2013 and beyond, it's likely that MLS, American soccer, and the rest of sport will follow that general direction -- it might not march with the zeitgeist in lock step, but it will eventually catch up.

But what about Europe? As the march towards acceptance and openness continues in 2013 on this side of the Pond, sooner or later those successes will start becoming irresistible to those longing for change on the other side. In turn, they will become the fodder of discussion, and will eventually peter up towards to the powers that be who are looking towards those same goals. Maybe a version of "Don't Cross The Line" will be started by the Premier League, or perhaps a European team will bring the You Can Play project to Europe, or maybe a few lower level clubs will consider holding Pride Nights at their games -- all extreme examples, and perhaps flights of fancy at best. But as long as MLS continues to set an excellent example for the world to follow, chances are even arch-conservatives and known do-nothings like Sepp Blatter will get off their bully pulpits to bask in the brilliant glow, and bring positive attention.

The situation in Europe is almost reaching a critical mass, and as Boateng's protest have demonstrated players and supporters are starting to show signs that the old attitudes of intolerance will not be accepted any more. But if the problem of homophobia continues to remain un-championed, and views that harsh punishments for unacceptable behaviour are an impediment to on-field success continue to abate -- that change will never come. it's time for Europe to start noticing what's happening here, start taking a few pages from the MLS playbook on acceptance and openness. And what better time to start than at the outset of a new year?