Lahm the Medievalist: A Poor Lesson in Tolerance.

 

When Olli Kahn criticised the leadership skills of Phillipp Lahm last year, homophobia was probably one of the last things on his mind. Rather a typically crass – and probably slightly envious – attempt to galvanise a generation of footballers he saw as too media friendly, too diplomatic.

His words came to mind the other week, however, when the current FC Bayern and Germany captain publicly urged homosexual players in the Bundesliga not to come out, for fear of repercussions from the media and the fans.

If ever there was an example of weak leadership, this was it. Lahm, the supposed figurehead of a new, progressive era of German football on the field, has – for the second time, no less – displayed a disheartening amount of fear when it comes to his wider responsibilities in football. After making similar suggestions in his autobiography last summer, it is perhaps unsurprising that Lahm has adopted the stance of a reservist when it comes to football’s last taboo.

There is, no doubt, some validity in his opinion. For all football’s admirable – and, in the world of sport, unique – work to expel institutional and societal racism from its community, it remains positively medieval in terms of sexual equality. Sex scandals and footballers are manifold, an integral part of the textured, often ugly tapestry of the modern game. The media and public relish the stories of Neven Subotic’s orgies and Franck Ribéry’s unfortunate encounters with underage women with a somewhat perverse enthusiasm, but should the concept of homosexuality wander unwittingly into a debate, it is greeted with silence at best, and hostility at worst.

It is preposterous to suggest that sexuality has no relevance to football, even more so to declare that the game remains – and is justified in remaining – institutionally heterosexual. And yet Lahm’s assertion that the “the footballing community is not ready to accept homosexual players as a normality” is an astonishingly popular one.

One cannot help but pose the question: when and how does the Germany captain think the coveted “normality” will be attained? Surely not through more silence and passive hostility to the very idea of homosexuality in football? His comments, far from alienating him from those homophobes who are littered through the footballing world as he had hoped, simply implied that it is the responsibility of homosexual players to defend themselves against homophobia, and not the responsibility of the game to change its perceptions according to the world it entertains.

Since Robert Enke’s death in 2009, the awareness of depression and mental pressure among footballing professionals has risen dramatically. The cases of Ralf Rangnick and Babak Rafati have been treated with far more maturity and far more sense than they arguably would have been even four or five years ago. When black players were subject to fan violence, the game did not leave them out in the cold, it attempted – albeit slowly – to change its perceptions.

The same must be done with regard to homophobia. Lahm suggests that being a gay footballer is different to being a gay politician, in that politicians “do not perform in front of 40,000 people every week”. Well no, no they don’t. They perform in front of entire nations. And, as a general rule, those millions of people don’t care whether said politician is gay, straight or even asexual, because they have adapted to a more liberal set of societal values. The idea that football should not be expected to do the same is ridiculous.

Gay players, of course, have every right to remain quiet about their sexuality should they wish to. That is their right as human beings and members of a democratic society. But to have a contemporary as influential as Lahm actively discourage them from exercising the freedom of expression to which they should be equally entitled is a disaster for homosexual footballers.

Openly homosexual former NBA star John Amaechi questioned Phillipp Lahm’s sense of his own responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the comments. He was quite right. The only way football can hope to alter the backward attitudes of many of its fans and professionals is through people with Lahm’s influence setting an appropriate example. The likes of Theo Zwanziger and Mario Gomez appreciate that. Why not Lahm?

Because he would, apparently, rather avoid controversy than see football become more tolerant. What an example to set. What a message to send out to young players and fans. Let us hope he never runs for Chancellor.

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KitHolden

Kit Holden is a freelance sports writer, specialising in German football. Alongside his contributions to the Bundesliga Fanatic, he provides regular Bundesliga coverage for The Independent Online, Total Football Magazine, Talking Baws and others. He is based in Cambridge, where he allegedly does an undergraduate degree in French and German.

17 Comments

  1. I don’t know if its about voicing his own opinion as much as it is voicing that of the silent majority inside football organizations which are still for the large part, rather conservative. As the leading figure of German football he has to chose his words very carefully and an endorsement for them coming out of the closet may be draw even more attention to him than this.

  2. Sometimes I do wonder if it will really be as bad as everybody says for gay professional athletes. Obviously I don’t really know… But I do remember everyone in the past thinking that it would be such a huge deal to be gay in the military. When my ex “came out” in the Canadian military, he said people respected that he was good at his job and that was by far the most important thing. I can imagine the same thing among players on a team. I have to think that talking about it in the abstract and talking about a specific, valued, respected teammate would be different. And with the backing of your teammates, I’d think the reactions of fans and sponsors could fall into line. I guess we’ll find out… sooner or later…

  3. Must admit that I’m split on this issue too. Look at the way the press (and perhaps even a portion of the fans?) seem to baying for a footballer to be found homosexual. Remember that poor guy in some Scandinavian second division when he came out? Made news all over the world, and he was comparatively unknown.

    I do think that once one player takes the first step, it’ll probably make it easier for other footballers, similarly with how its become much more accepted to come out about mental problems now in German football. However, I can understand why no footballer wants to be the first one.

  4. Well, I guess I’ll be the lone voice supporting Lahm. Henning (above) has it right – Lahm is surely speaking from his knowledge of those who are in the closet. He knows what they have to deal with, he hears about whatever abuse they get from fellow players and/or fans, and he’s concluded, quite rightly I think, that it would indeed be foolish to come out. It’s nice that all of us here are so liberated and free-thinking, but a huge portion of the population – as well as much of the rest of the world – most definitely is not. And I don’t see why anyone should come out, just so we can all feel good about ourselves.

  5. With respect to Phillip’s footballing abilities, he’d still be a better captain than Lahm though. Koan bestseller.

  6. “Let us hope he never runs for Chancellor.”

    Similarly, I wouldn’t like to see Edmund Stoiber as Bayern captain.

  7. First the controversy with the captaincy at EURO 2010 with Ballack, then his more than stupid book and now this… This guy keeps annoying me more and more every day.

    There have been players punished at Bayern or in the Nationalteam for less than this. Ask Kuranyi. But he won’t get touched as long he is the captain of both teams.

    Everybody can decide for himself what to do or what not to do. Nobody needs these stupid comments by Lahm.

  8. Great article.

    Sad to see the German captain digging his own grave with these comments. Can’t see him going in favour of either of the two sides though. Tough predicament, he’s gotten himself into.

  9. Well as for Mr. Y it is somewhat of an open secret that he is gay, despite him feeling the need to clarify he is not. Even though I don’t know any numbers I’m sure a large percentage of fans at the club he spent 8 years with knew or atleast suspected it and it never seemed to have been a problem.

    I honestly think that now is a time where players can come out although it probably should be a larger group but I can totally understand why they don’t (yet).
    That said why are homosexuals always expected to announce their sexual orientation? I couldn’t care less about a player’s relationship (as long as it does not interfere with his job) wether its with a man or a woman and I know that is naive but neither should anybody else and if they want to bring their boyfriend along to sit with the WAGs and cheer them on so what?.

  10. Odd. I haven’t come across these comments in the German press yet.

    Rumors are such a weird thing.
    Can one openly comment here on what has secretively, with knowingly raised eyebrows, been spoken about in German football circles for years? Actually, these speculations have died down because nobody really cares anymore, but still…

    So, this is according to rumor, quite a number of the German WC 2010 squad are gay, but – also according to rumor – there’s a gentlemen’s agreement with the press that they will not out a player against his will. So, like, X’s marriage, rumor has it, is only a decoy. Y is in a relationship with a TV presenter. Z’s “girlfriend” is actually a Lesbian but as they’re good friends they have decided it is the best way for both to present themselves to the public as a couple. Talk Talk Talk. Talk Talk Talk? The fact that there was all this talk alone shows that people were not ready yet to treat such things as everyday. Fact is also, any players have decided to keep in the closet. And that is their decision, even if I wish it wasn’t or needn’t be. I’n not in their situation. I have to respect that decision.

    Lahm himself is usually singled out as one of these players. I wouldn’t be mentioning him by name if he hadn’t mentioned these rumors in his autobiography himself. And whether he himself is gay or not, he surely has friends in squads who are, and who are uncomfortable about coming out. So I view his comments either as an explanation why he has not yet publicly come out himself, or as a public voice of understanding for someone who is staying in the closet.
    It does sometimes feel the public is actually baying for a player to come out. Maybe that can be felt as a something of a pressure, too. I guess a player just wants to be left in peace and does not want his sexual preferences splashed out all over the tabloids. Even if everybody is only waiting to pat him on his shoulders and support him and congratulate oneself on one’s tolerance.

    So, personally I disagree with Lahm, and I do hope coming out would lift a weight off a player’s shoulders. But then, what do I know? I’m not in that player’s situation. It’s a tough one. I am hoping players will soon be comfortable about coming out, but as long as they are not, I will have to respect their reasoning and their fears and their privacy also, don’t I?

  11. Point of pedantry: it is totally unjustifiable to refer to John Amaechi as a “star.” He was a journeyman, totally average.

    Of course, that has absolutely no bearing on any of the concerns raised in this piece. Just thought I’d be that guy.

  12. Well done Kit.

    It is disappointing to say the least because I don’t think Lahm really feels this way and he more or less is treading the “party line” or how the older heads in football would react to this. The fact that he so blatantly backs such an antiquated thought process is not very inspiring from Germany’s captain and poster child.

  13. KitHolden- very well written 🙂

    I am very disappointed with Lahm’s comments. His comments are very not at all beneficial to sexual equality and tolerance.

  14. Well-written, sums up the frustration with his comments. But- oh boy. First, let me say that I do not find Lahm’s comments at all helpful to efforts toward sexual equality and tolerance. But you can’t say Gomez or Neuer or anyone else quipping “yeah gay footballers should just out themselves already” have been terribly helpful, either. For one, the decision to come out is very personal and it is NOT anybody’s place to tell gay footballers when or if they ought to take that step. As much as I find Lahm’s comments to err dishearteningly on the side of pessimism, the Gomez-attitude is almost insultingly lackadaisical. In a sporting culture full of belligerence, machismo, and deeply embedded violence, to come out as a gay footballer and take the pitch week in, week out in front of hundreds of thousands of unsympathetic eyes is hardly a walk in the park.

    I don’t think having a high-profile player out himself is going to do much, unfortunately. Perhaps over time it will be the first step in many (many many many) toward normatizing perceptions of sexuality. But what a sacrifice to ask of whomever that martyr may be.

    If anything I am deeply deeply disappointed in every official and player who has encouraged players to out themselves, but never once even asked for the same forward-step needed from the other side: that fans of the game show tolerance, even as players/teammates themselves do. Why throw someone into a pool full of piranhas instead of ridding the waters of some danger first? This is the attitude I’d like to see this sport embrace. Rather than fishing for role models of homosexuality in the sport, ask instead for role models of tolerance – whether gay footballers should make that personal choice to out themselves or not.

  15. Spot on. If this doesn’t show what a ‘safe’ personality Lahm is in an overly puritanical and conservative age, then nothing else does. He is captain for this reason alone. He is not controversial nor outspoken. When he was outspoken he was fined – that sums it up perfectly. But we shouldn’t be so harsh on Lahm but rather the system that enabled his existence. Whether he was conservative or not as a boy and was just suited to the hierarchy that he represents now is inconsequential. It’s simply telling of the times we live in and the ideology that permeates them.

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