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Gay soccer players, please stand up

By JOHN LEICESTER, AP Sports Columnist

LONDON -- For The Daily Telegraph of London, the announcement from England cricketer Steven Davies that he is gay was worthy of its front page, alongside Libya's struggle to be rid of Moammar Gadhafi and a story about how parents should treat fevers in children.

How sad.

Two decades into the 21st century, the day when a top athlete's sexuality is not news at all still seems so distant. It cannot come fast enough.

It reflects poorly on professional sports that the number of openly gay athletes can generally be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Gareth Thomas in rugby. The Welshman's coming out in 2009 made him such a trailblazer that actor Mickey Rourke is talking about making a movie of his life.

In cricket, Davies is England's first professional player to publicly announce he is gay. The wicketkeeper says he was inspired him by Thomas' example, who "showed me it can be done."

Davies says "there was no one to look up to" before Thomas.

And at the top of soccer?

No one. Just silence that grows more deafening with each athlete from another sport who speaks up.

Statistically, logically, naturally, there must be gay players at Manchester United, Barcelona or other big clubs. But they, their friends and families are keeping that secret for whatever reason. Like Davies before he found the courage to tell his England teammates, perhaps they dread the moment when dressing room talk turns to the subject of girlfriends.

Maybe they don't want to be subjected to the intolerant chants that fans directed last March against Thomas. Or, like Thomas, perhaps they don't want to be known as a gay soccer player and fear that if they come out, people will see no further than their sexuality and not see a soccer player who just happens to be gay.

Perhaps, like international rugby referee Nigel Owens or two-time Grand Slam tournament winner Amelie Mauresmo, they would prove that being openly gay is not a career-killer. Owens has said that talking about being gay was liberating, "my refereeing improved because I was happy and my career took off."

Whatever the reason, soccer leaders should feel ashamed that gay players haven't been made to feel comfortable enough to speak freely.

The boss of world soccer, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in December saw fit to make light of the lack of gay rights in Qatar. With a smile, Blatter said gay fans "should refrain from any sexual activities" while in the Gulf kingdom that will host the 2022 World Cup.

Blatter later apologized. But it is no laughing matter that gay soccer players find it even harder to come out than gay politicians. It is not funny that a respected figure like Marcello Lippi, Italy's World Cup-winning coach, felt it was acceptable to say in 2009 that gay soccer players should stay in the closet, that a gay soccer couple would create scandal in Italy and that he has never come across a gay player in four decades in the sport.

By speaking out, Davies makes such intolerance seem still more unacceptable.

"It is putting a lot more pressure on other sports, with football being the main one," says Gary Nunn, a spokesman for British gay rights campaign group Stonewall.

"We definitely need more role models in football," he adds. "We're OK with our gay cricketers and gay rugby players, but with football, it's quite concerning."

Davies says deciding to speak about his sexuality was even more nerve-racking than facing Brett Lee, which is saying something given that the Australian bowler has fired down balls at nearly 100 mph (160 kph). The more gay athletes follow the path laid by Thomas and Davies, the closer sports get to a day when this no longer has to be on front pages.

"We want to get to the stage where this doesn't become news," says Nunn, "where it becomes totally matter of fact."

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org

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