It was just a joke when Brian Clough said it, too. Very little footage of the short-lived mid‑1990s ITV panel show Sport In Question has survived to the present day. But there is one widely shared clip in which Clough, then a couple of years out of management, is asked by an audience member whether he feels responsible for transfer fee inflation. “I feel responsible for Justin Fashanu!” retorts Clough, with a wicked glint in his eye, as the audience crackles with laughter. “It took me about three months to twig him. But I twigged him.”
Yes: just a little gag on primetime television about a footballer being gay, without the faintest hint of distaste or pushback. At least two decades later, in 2014, when Terry Venables chuckled that he and Clough had looked like a “pair of woofters” when they walked out hand in hand before the 1991 FA Cup final – just a joke, of course – the Sky Sports presenter Ben Shephard had the presence of mind to issue an instant apology. And it was just a joke when Ian Wright went on the radio just before the 2018 World Cup and responded to a comment about Russia’s institutionalised hostility to gay people by quipping: “I won’t wear a dress, then.” Wright expressed regret for his “ill-judged remark” after being reminded of his responsibilities by the BBC.
The idea of humour as an assertion of superiority – of identifying individuals or groups of low status and targeting them for scorn – goes back to the ancient Greeks. “Taken generally,” Plato writes in Philebus, “the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” Consciously or not, humour and its reception often subtly reveal the contours of power in a community: who is deemed a legitimate target and who is not.
“Espero que me respeten: soy gay” (“I hope you will respect me: I’m gay”). For a few hours on Sunday afternoon, the internet chewed over the meaning of these six little words from the Twitter account of the former Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. “It’s time to tell our story, Iker,” his old teammate Carles Puyol replied with a kiss emoji. The meme factory went into overdrive. Fans swooned. Fans hurled abuse and vowed the pair would burn in hell. Still, nobody ever achieved personal emancipation without snapping a few chains.
But it was all an illusion. Not long afterwards, Puyol apologised for – anyone spot a theme here? – “a stupid joke that didn’t have any bad intentions”.
After deleting his original tweet, Casillas came back online to claim that he had been the victim of a hacker. A hacker who, by some unfathomable act of restraint, had contented themselves with just a single tweet before simply returning control of the account to its original owner.
The real issue here, naturally, has nothing to do with cybersecurity or even the vapidity of social media, which some people will sniffily tell you bears little resemblance to real life, as if the hurt and the harm it causes is somehow less tangible or valid. The gay footballer of 1995 will have seen the way Clough talked about Fashanu, just as the gay fan of 2014 will have seen the language used by Venables, just as the gay teenager of 2022 will have been on Twitter at the weekend and seen the way a World Cup winner was prepared to mine this most personal of moments for disposable content.
Drill into the surface and there is a cruel knowingness there, a bleak self-awareness that is just familiar enough with the public liturgy of coming out to be able to mock it. And jokes do not simply appear out of thin air. Nor do they simply evaporate into the ether. Jokes help to establish norms, define the boundaries of taste, harden shared assumptions. They are invariably much more explicit in private than they are in public.
So it is worth pondering on what sort of joke might be deemed acceptable in dressing rooms where those kind of attitudes have held sway. If you’re a young gay footballer, what are the chances you push back on a homophobic gag that cracks up the entire room? What are the chances you simply hold your tongue, laugh along with everyone else, carry your pain home with you at the end of the day?
This is not a football problem. This is a men’s football problem and for those of you wondering why the sport has not taken a stronger stance against Qatar or Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relationships are punishable under the law, perhaps vignettes such as this help to explain why.
In large parts of the game, the resolve and the desire to force change simply does not exist. Three weeks ago, the FA and other federations wrote to Fifa requesting permission to wear a rainbow armband at the World Cup: an inoffensive and pifflingly inadequate gesture, the equivalent of walking into a plague pit waving a jar of Vaseline. Even so, this column understands that Fifa is yet to dignify their request with a response.
For the most part, the reactionaries of men’s football no longer throw around slurs or talk about “twigging” people. Instead, prejudice can arrive in different forms: wrapped in irony or jest, self-aware or self-deprecating, trying to convince you it’s actually the butt of its own joke. Or alternatively it manifests itself in silence: glimpsing an opportunity for change and persuasion and renewal, and simply turning the other way.