Opinion: With his exit, Jake Daniels marks the beginning of a new, more progressive era for English football

Blackpool’s Jake Daniels in action during the Peterborough vs Blackpool game at the Weston Homes Stadium in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, UKIMAGO/Mark Cosgrove/News Images/Reuters

Michael Coren is an author and ordained cleric of the Anglican Church of Canada.

A few years ago I was in London having lunch with the chaplain of one of the UK’s most famous and successful football teams. We discussed the challenges players faced; Abuse, racism, the difficulties in living out their faith (we met as friends and as Christian ministers), and the unrelenting pressure on young men who were often very unprepared for sudden apotheosis, or for that matter instant demonization.

One of his findings surprised me in particular. Without naming any names, of course, he said: “It can be hellish, almost unbearable. But it’s the hardest for the gay players. You have to live a lie every day, every moment. It will take tremendous strength for one of them to get out.”

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old player did just that. In an interview, Jake Daniels told Sky Sports he’s made his decision: “Now is the right time to do it. I feel ready to tell people my story.” He continued, “Since coming out to my family, club and teammates, that time of rethinking and the stress it caused is over. It affected my mental health. Now I’m just confident and happy to finally be myself.”

The decision of Mr Daniels, who plays for Blackpool Football Club in the league (the second tier of English football), made headlines not only in Britain but around the world. This should come as a surprise, especially for a continent like Europe that prides itself on its progressive attitude towards sexuality. But this is football and this is different.

The handful of other top players who have come out over the years have waited to retire. The best known is the German Thomas Hitzlsperger, who played for his national team and in the English Premier League. Before Mr Daniels, in 1990, Justin Fashanu was the only top British footballer to come out while he was still playing, in a highly sensational tabloid story. In the years that followed, the homophobia Mr. Fashanu endured from other players, coaches, fans and even his own family was unrelenting. Eight years after coming out, he would take his own life.

Mr Daniels faced a happily different reaction from colleagues, commentators and football governing bodies. Tottenham Hotspur FC and England striker Harry Kane wrote: “Kudos to you and the way your friends, family, club and captain have supported you.” Former England striker Gary Lineker, for millions that Face of football, said: “It’s been a brilliant season for you on the pitch and now off the pitch with your courage too. I am sure you will receive great love and support from the football community and many others will follow your path. Much luck.”

However, fans can be cruel. Football culture has become less violent and crude since the ugly 1970s, but there is still racism, intense tribalism and outright hatred. The death of supporters of opposing teams is sometimes mocked. Nazi gestures were aimed at supporters of Tottenham, a club historically linked to the Jewish community. Players and their families face personal insults. The culprits are now part of a dirty fringe element, but it’s still there. In fact, Mr. Daniels has already been targeted by online opponents.

The reaction of individual players is another issue, and while the vast majority of them are likely to be indifferent or supportive, it would be naïve to think that homophobia, or at least uneasiness, doesn’t exist among groups of young, mostly working people. class men. There are also many players who come from cultures where homosexuality is not accepted, including countries where it can lead to prison terms.

Little aware of all this, Mr. Daniels assumed as a young man that his sexuality and career just couldn’t coexist without public acknowledgment. “There are people out there in the same room as me who might not feel comfortable revealing their sexuality,” he said. “I just want to tell them that you don’t have to change who you are or how you should be just to fit in.”

The timing is absolutely appropriate in every respect. With football season drawing to a close, everyone can spend the summer reflecting on this young man’s bravery and determination. On a larger scale, the wheels of tolerance and growth can turn a little more smoothly.

But it’s important to be realistic. Just a day before Mr Daniels made his announcement, attendees at a Tottenham game were arrested for anti-Semitic and racist gestures and chanting. Hate tends to find a way.

Former Wales rugby team captain Gareth Thomas came out in 2009. “Telling teammates I’m gay was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he later said. This from someone who has been on the receiving end of crunching tackles for decades. Luckily, his trainer said to him, “You can’t go through this alone, and these people love you.” He was right. They did and they do.

I have no idea if Jake Daniels will be one of the really great players, but he’s certainly one of the really great men. The change is underway.

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