Watch: Former Soccer Star Says Lawyer Told Gay Player to Stay Closeted

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 10, 2021
Originally published on September 10, 2021

Former Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand
Former Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand  (Source:Associated Press)

A former soccer pro testified to British lawmakers that when he advised a gay fellow player to come out, he heard how a lawyer had advised the closeted man to keep his sexuality a secret, Sky News reports.

Rio Ferdinand, a former member of the English pro soccer team Manchester United who now has a career as a sports commentator, shared the story while testifying to a joint committee about a proposed law called the Online Safety Bill.

"While speaking about the impact of racist abuse, the session turned towards issues around homophobia and Mr Ferdinand said he met a 'player who had come out and was advised by a lawyer not to come out and speak,'" Sky News recounted.

"I initially said 'you need to come out and speak your truth and be proud of who you are,'" Ferdinand recalled.

But the world of professional athletics is largely homophobic, with athletes and fans alike liable to reject out players and target them for abuse, and the closeted player was advised by a lawyer that he would be better off hiding his authentic self.

Ferdinand explained that "based on his experience with that individual" the lawyer in question "didn't think that he was strong enough mentally at that time, and have the right pieces in place to be able to withstand the media attention and the spotlight."

Ferdinand recalled, "Initially I was quite put back about the advice, but after being explained to by someone who's actually been through that process I understood it," iNews reported.

Indeed, the former player testified, soccer in the U.K. has such a high profile that the "amount of eyeballs and the amount of attention and press pages that they're going to get" if players come out as LGBTQ+ "is so much more" than if they played any other sport, the Sky News article detailed.

Recent years — and this summer especially — have seen a growing number of athletes come out, whether they are elite cyclists, pro baseball players, or on hockey teams. In the world of amateur athletics, the Tokyo Olympics in July shattered records for the number of openly LGBTQ+ athletes were in competition... and the number who won medals.

But soccer has been beset by anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and incidents globally. Earlier this summer there were fears that a chant popular with Mexican fans could derail Mexico's chances for competing in Qatar at next year's World Cup because the chant contains an anti-gay slur.

Qatar itself is a controversial pick next year is controversial pick for the quadrennial championship because of that country's anti-LGBTQ+ laws. The country has gone so far as to hire global soccer sensation — and longtime LGBTQ+ ally — David Beckham as an "ambassador" in a bid to smooth over its reputation as a place hostile to sexual minorities.

But England has been a focus on issues around racist and homophobic abuse by soccer fans, both in the stands and on social media.

Footballers 365.com noted that "it remains the case that there are no openly gay current players in the English professional game."

To watch Ferdinand's comments, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.