In journalism you're always supposed to lead with the biggest piece of news, to give your readers everything that they need to know as quickly as is possible. So with that in mind: Thomas Hitzlsperger, who played for Aston Villa from 2000-2005, has announced in Die Zeit that he is gay. There's the overarching football story of the day, and if you didn't know that before you read this, I'd like to thank you for making 7500 to Holte literally your first stop on the football part of the internet today.
If that is all there was to this story, there would be almost no point whatsoever in writing about it. But I've been absolutely thrilled with something I've seen as the story has filtered out today: the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I understand that most people are intelligent individuals who understand that homosexuality is not a big deal. It is simply another piece of the puzzle that makes up millions of people, no different from heterosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, or anything else on the spectrum of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are always people who are willing to spout hatred and ignorance when news like this comes out.
But looking at my twitter feeds, I saw none of that. Not from anyone I followed, nor from anyone I followed who was retweeting in order to shame people. So I decided to do a quick search of "Hitzlsperger" on twitter to see what I found. Five minutes of scrolling through the feed did not reveal a single homophobic tweet. The overwhelming feeling was of support and love for Hitzlsperger, which is exactly as it should be.
For many people - including several that I have known - coming out as non-heterosexual is a very tough experience. It is only recently in society that we have seen attitudes about homosexuality largely shifting to acceptance. For many, they have to fear the reactions of their family, friends, and peers, many of whom may not be as open-minded about the idea as others. But by coming out publicly, Hitzlsperger becomes (whether or not he likes it) a role model for what are likely thousands of gay football fans. We've already confirmed that non-heterosexual people are no different than their heterosexual counterparts, so it stands to obvious reason that thousands of gay fans love and admire Premier League footballers just as much as do heterosexual fans. They've now finally got a role model to look up to, someone who has played in the very highest levels of football and who was (and is) gay. Representation in things like this matters, and Hitzlsperger has provided some very prominent representation
If there is one disappointing side to today's news, it's that Hitzlsperger felt to need to come out only after he had retired. It seems that, by and large, the male athletic world lags far behind the rest of the universe in acceptance of non-heterosexuality. Will Leitch, at Sports on Earth, had a fantastic take on this issue that he published just last week:
In an age of Jason Collins not finding a job and gay rumors potentially blackballing an NFL player from the league, it feels even riskier for an athlete to be out today than it did two years ago. The anticipation and the speculation has led to a backlash. The calls for sports to open up are making them more tight-knit and closed. People keep saying it's getting better in professional sports. I'm not seeing it.
Unlike what Leitch writes elsewhere in that column, there are examples of gay players participating in sports openly right now. It ignores, for instance, examples such as Olympic diver Tom Daley, who came out in December as bisexual. But he's almost correct, as those players have little-to-no visibility, thanks to the fact that they either play at lower levels or in less popular sports. And he is even more correct in saying that it really doesn't seem as if we are any closer to having a prominent, openly-non-heterosexual athlete, from a major sport. Hitzlsperger may open the door for someone at the highest level of football to come out about their sexuality, but there is still the worry that the player could be ostracized by the rest of the football community. That worry shouldn't exist, but it does.
That said, the overwhelming public reaction to today's news should help ease those worries. From teams to players to fans, we've seen almost nothing but support for Hitzlsperger. And that's as it should be. From our perspective, the only things we should be worried about are 1) was Hitzlsperger a good footballer (yes) and 2) was he a good person (yes). Nothing that was said today changes either of those facts, nor will a person's sexuality ever affect the answers to those two questions.
So congratulations to Der Hammer on making an announcement that will likely make his life significantly better. And thanks, too, for doing so in such a way that it will undoubtedly make the lives of thousands of others - both fans and players - better as well.