It’s been over 26 years since footballer Justin Fashanu came out publicly. A coming out that ended in suicide. The beautiful game has a very dark side and since then, gays in the game are few and far between; in fact you can count on one hand the amount of players that have come out since Justin, all after retiring from English football.
But football referee Ryan Atkin is about to is about to embark upon the journey that Sky Sports reporter Mark McAdam knows all too well. So we thought who better to talk to the star about his momentous decision to come out than McAdam himself.
As a referee, Atkin is the closest man to the action, he’s the boss, the man in charge, the man the players love one minute and hate the next. And on this occasion he also happens to be gay. He’s been an official within football since 1999 and despite being gay since the age of 21 – has never spoke publicly about his sexuality, until now.
He does so with the full support of The Premier League, The FA, The EFL and The Referee’s Union. Just a small indication of how far the game has come; this perhaps another step to show just how much football is moving forward.
The magnitude of this decision shouldn’t be underestimated, Atkins himself even admits that on occasions he thought about giving the game up he loves; “I wasn’t enjoying the game, I wasn’t performing at my best and I was struggling to accept myself. Looking back now I’m glad I didn’t quit, it’s thanks to my friends and family for sticking by me. I may have be officiating, but I wasn’t myself.”
MARK: Why decide to come out, and why was now the right time?
RYAN: “Accepting being gay was difficult, especially within football. I got to the point where I wanted to be happy and focus on what felt right for myself. I believe when you’re in a happy place you will excel in every other aspect of your life.
“Because of the recent work by Stonewall, The Premier League, The FA, Sky Sports, Adidas and the Rainbow Laces campaign I think it’s time football becomes a more inclusive environment for everyone. As a referee, and being a neutral party I can now be honest about who I am and hopefully people will accept me for who I am which in turn will help the sport move forward. This sport touches every corner of the globe and can be so powerful.”
MARK: Do you feel like a pioneer by being the first referee in football to come out?
RYAN: “I don’t feel like a pioneer but I do feel by coming out it will allow others to be who they want to be, especially younger people coming into the sport. Maybe it will help other officials or even players to come out. I’m optimistic for the future.”
“A lot of clubs have LGBT supporter groups and policies, which shows how much football is changing.
MARK: How much support have you had about coming out?
RYAN: “Everyone has been fantastic, I’ve had so much support from all of the governing bodies, they’ve been fully supportive. Hopefully I can help make things easier for others and can help to put things in place that helps to make others aware of LGBT issues in sport.”
MARK: How do you think you’ll be perceived now you’re out?
RYAN: “I don’t envisage any change, however time will tell. As a referee you like to be in control of situations, but this is one I don’t have any control of. I’m heading into the unknown.
People’s reactions to me will depend on their life experience and what contact they’ve had with LGBT+ people in their life. In sport there are still very few LGBT+ out there but people like Nigel Owens (The Rugby Referee) and Gareth Thomas (Rugby player) have made people more aware that sport is inclusive and regardless of sexuality you can be passionate about sport, either playing or watching.”
MARK: Do you feel better now you’ve come out?
RYAN: “I feel much better in myself and I feel I can have open conversations with people about my sexuality. I don’t have to think about my responses or worry about what people might think any more. For me coming out has been a positive move so far.”
MARK: So now, as an openly gay referee what’s it like being in charge of 22 blokes?
RYAN: “Some say being a referee is fun, others would disagree. But for me being openly gay doesn’t change anything at all. You get respect for how good you are, not your sexuality. I love football and I’m passionate about making a difference, on and off the pitch.”
MARK: It’s the question I get asked all the time, and now I’m going to ask you. How long do you think it will be before we see a Premier League footballer come out?
RYAN: “I think speculation is what keeps players from coming out as gay. I think the pressure from the media is what stops players from making it public. The weight on their shoulders would be huge. I don’t know if a player will want to go from being the good footballer to the good gay footballer. I don’t think anyone would want that title.
“Football is changing though, the support from the governing bodies is making a difference. One day this won’t be a story.”