Stephen Byrne talks about his documentary on homosexuality and football
Stephen Byrne, RTÉ Two Tube and 2fm presenter, speaks to JOE about his 'Playing It Straight' documentary which airs on Wednesday night.
Growing up obsessed with football, Stephen Byrne's disenchantment with the game grew as he realised he was gay.
On Wednesday night on RTÉ 2, the 2fm presenter's documentary Playing Straight will look at how we are almost in 2017, yet there are still no openly gay players in English professional football.
Speaking to JOE, Stephen said that he came up with the idea of the documentary in October 2015, when the Daily Mirror ran a story claiming that two current players were on the verge of coming out.
It never happened.
"I thought it was great initially, that finally this barrier was being broken down," he says.
"But it turned into a witch-hunt, bookmakers were taking bets on who first the gay player to come out would be, and then nothing. It was initially an exciting moment, but then I realised it wouldn't happen.
"The journalist who wrote it was initially impossible to work with. We went to great lengths to speak to her and got nothing. My production team and I came *this* to just turning up at her office, doorstepping her. When she eventually spoke she said she was 'still working on the story.'
"It was either fabricated or, to give her the benefit of the doubt, it comes down to the reaction, the finger-pointing, people saying 'it's Luke Shaw, it's Nathaniel Clyne,' or any of the other players that were speculated about. Then you get Shaw tweeting 'I'm not gay,' and while understandable in the current climate that wasn't helpful.
"It brought me back to being a teenager and how I fell out of love with the game. I'd remember things like guys 'pretend flirting' with me and I'd push him away. He didn't even think I was gay, but it was part of a culture that made it very difficult for me to come out. So that's also what spawned the documentary."
Pardew spoke, everyone else declined
In the making of the documentary, Stephen contacted every single Premier League club and every side from the Championship, one tier below. Only one club - and manager - would prove cooperative.
That was Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew.
"When I was speaking to the Liverpool FC communications officer, he said it wasn't necessary for players to come out," says Stephen.
"As long as they're playing football, why should they have to? But speaking to (former Wales rugby player) Gareth Thomas and (former Leeds United midfielder) Robbie Rogers, you'll find that living with the taunts and hiding something like that affects your game.
"If I was 16 and there was a role model, it would have meant the world to me. Now, instead, you'd potentially have young gay footballers worried about going to Russia or Qatar. That's not right. Players should be looking at it like, 'I'll be very proud of myself as it will influence the next generation of footballers in a very good way.'"
In researching the documentary, Stephen made contact with FIFA regarding the upcoming World Cups in both Russia and Qatar and whether gay players and supporters would be made to feel welcome. On Tuesday night, he got this response.
FIFA wants all participants and visitors to the World Cup to experience a positive experience regardless of sexual orientation. The organization of the World Cup can have a positive social impact in the organizing country. Both Russia and Qatar are committed to offering a warm welcome and a space of equality and respect to all visitors. We trust that they will keep the promise. We have no reason to doubt it. Both countries organised a number of international sporting events in recent years and hosted many tourists and that was never a problem, nor will it be in 2018 and 2022. The World Cup will give a great welcome to all visitors alike.
Why the silence?
Stephen Byrne believes the silence of all but Pardew and Palace on the subject comes down to one thing; fear.
"It wasn't just to do with the managers. It was the general fear around the subject. There's a lot of fear," he adds.
"Nobody wants to take responsibility and they're afraid of saying something. When we spoke to players, nobody wanted to be the spokesperson. Joey Barton made some statements and he's now the person that's always approached.
"Somebody from a top four club told me it wasn't an issue. Everybody blames everybody else. Some people are afraid to talk about it because that means they admit there's an issue, and that means something has to be done about it."
Playing Straight airs on RTÉ 2 at 9.30pm on Wednesday night