[Britain’s] Football Association’s commitment to tackling homophobia has taken a severe battering. After removing many key individuals and groups from its highly effective Tackling Homophobia Working Group, it has now suddenly postponed this week’s planned launch of its ground-breaking anti-homophobia video advert.

While the FA and other national football associations have long challenged racism, the video is the first high-profile attempt to give homophobia the red card. A world first for football, it’s release this week would have given the FA huge prestige; stamping its mark as a trail-blazing organisation that is leading the world in making football welcoming and safe for gay players, fans and officials.

Produced by award-winning advertising agency, Ogilvy, the video was due to be unveiled at Wembley Stadium, with a fanfare of publicity and the backing of FA chairman, Lord Triesman. The plan was to put it on YouTube, do a viral campaign via the internet and get all professional clubs to broadcast it on stadium screens at half-time.

The last minute postponement came just days before the launch and weeks after the official invites were sent out; causing dismay among football and gay groups who were backing the project, including the football diversity and equality campaign, Kick It Out, and the gay rights groups OutRage! and the Gay Football Supporters Network.

Although there are fears that the video might be quietly shelved, the FA insists that the launch has been delayed, not cancelled. It justifies the postponement with the claim that it needs to review its strategy on tackling anti-gay prejudice and how the video fits into the overall campaign.

The FA’s justification is hard to swallow. The video and strategy was agreed nearly two years ago and reconfirmed late last year. I know because I proposed the idea and have helped guide it through the FA’s decision-making procedures. It was conceived as one strand in a multi-strand strategy to challenge prejudice on the pitch and on the terraces. The FA saw and approved the video script. It delegated Kick It Out to produce it in association with the Ogilvy ad agency.

I suspect the real reason for the deferment is that when top FA officials saw the video they felt uneasy over its visceral homophobic language, even though this abuse is intended to expose and shame bigots. They lacked the confidence to defend the video they commissioned, in the same way they have often failed to robustly condemn homophobia on the pitch. Where was the FA’s public condemnation of the anti-gay taunts against players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole? Why did the FA (and UEFA) refuse to take action against the homophobic abuse involving Paul Scholes?

The video that has been produced was not my first preference. I always argued for an MTV-style format, with an uplifting, positive message, featuring a good music track and top straight players speaking out against homophobia. I wanted to see big-name stars like David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, David James and Stephen Gerard give homophobia the boot. Their involvement would have sent an influential message to fans in Britain and worldwide; helping promote the idea that homophobia is uncool and unacceptable. Sadly, I was out-voted.

The video agreed by the Football Association and Kick It Out takes a different, but also valid, angle to challenge homophobia. It features strong, arresting homophobic language. The main character, a youngish man, abuses a newspaper seller, tube train passenger and an office worker with anti-gay taunts. The video finishes with him shouting homophobic abuse at a football match. The captions make the point that since homophobia is not acceptable at work, it should not be acceptable on the terraces either.

The ad agency’s advice was that shock tactics could be an effective psychological device to expose and shame bigoted fans into toning down their homophobia. Ogilvy are professionals and experts in these matters. I can see their reasoning and believe the video will help challenge some of the bigots we are targeting.

Nevertheless, the video has been denounced by gay former NBA basketball star John Amaechi. He calls it “offensive,” “incendiary,” and “vulgar.”

Unlike John, I don’t object to the use of anti-gay abuse to make a point. The shock value is likely to give the video the impact and controversy necessary to generate publicity and debate. It will get people talking, which is a good thing.

The video launch postponement comes on top of the FA’s dissolution of the broad-based Tackling Homophobia Working Group. Set up several years ago, the group had helped push forward many of the FA’s constructive initiatives to rid football of homophobia. These include amending the FA’s ground rules to render people who chant anti-gay taunts liable to eviction from stadiums and arrest. Regrettably, enforcement is still weak and patchy. The FA needs to be more robust in requiring stewards to identify fans who shout homophobic abuse and to insist that the police arrest and charge them – in the same way that they arrest and charge racist fans.

A scene from the controversial anti-homophobia ad.

The FA has now reconstituted the Working Group with a hand-picked, much smaller and less representative number of members. It no longer includes all interested stakeholders. Many relevant lesbian and gay groups are not included. This does not inspire confidence. Even now, the FA will not explain why the old Working Croup was disbanded. Nor has it made public who is on the new Working Group. I don’t know.

This video is, of course, just a start. Sport is one the last great bastions of homophobia, and football is one of the least gay-friendly of all sports. Among other future initiatives, I would like to see FA securing the agreement of all clubs to feature anti-homophobia messages in their match programmes, on tickets and on billboards inside and outside football grounds. Why not? Why the reluctance?

True, not all footie fans, officials and players are homophobic. Most are not. But there is a homophobic hard-core. They need to be challenged, to rid the beautiful game of the ugliness of prejudice. Not next year. Now.

View the controversial anti-homophobia ad here.

Originally published by The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 10 February 2010.

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