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10 years of lacing up: Are Rainbow Laces enough?

As Stonewall relaunch their Rainbow Laces campaign for a second decade later this month, it should be a time to recognise the success of this movement, in which there is an abundance of progression and hope. However, given recent external situations surrounding the recognition of the LGBTQIA+ community in sport, including Jordan Henderson’s controversial move to Saudi Arabian Pro League side Al Ettifaq, just how far is there still to go for to create an inclusive space in sport driven by people not profit?

Rainbow Laces

Since the colourful campaign was introduced in 2013, over a million people- whether that’s professional athletes or grassroots teams- have worn the Rainbow Laces to stand strong with those more likely to face discrimination in sport. The introduction of the laces came at a perfect time, as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed on 17 July 2013 (with the first same sex marriage to take place on Saturday 29th March 2014), which shows it was at a time where societal views were slowly progressing, so a new more accepting audience was supposedly being created.

The laces, which have a rainbow print on them, have been used as a symbol for positive change in the LGBTQ+ community, in which many football clubs wear them one weekend a season to raise awareness for the community. This year the weekend falls towards the end of November. Although it’s great to see the yearly acknowledgment of the LGBTQ+ community, could the lack of representation during the rest of the season lose the value Stonewall were trying to convey originally in 2013?

The LGBTQ+ community can be seen to have less importancee in the Premier League for instance, in comparison to anti-racist movements. Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford are just three players in the premier League who advocate for racial equality in the game.

In autumn 2019, Sterling took part in an anti-racism campaign, No Room For Racism, involving the Premier League, the Football Association, the EFL, the Professional Footballers’ Association and anti-racism campaign group Kick It Out. Sterling’s services to racial equality in sport were rewarded with an MBE in 2021, in which the Chelsea forward believes that there “are still a lot of things” to improve, including social media and more “people taking more accountability”. Jordan Henderson was seen as one of a few ambassadors for the LGBTQ+ community, but after the recent backlash following his departure from the Premier League, is there a lack of genuine queer ally’s in the Premier League compared to those supporting other campaigns? Why is this?

Some could argue that the organisations involved in operating the Premier League may not want to be subjected to hate, by combining football and politics. Sadly there are still football fans that share homophobic views, so until these attitudes can be changed, investing into more commercial awareness of the LGBTQ+ community may lack financial gain.

The campaign has been a clear success, with a new report from Stonewall stating that 78 percent of respondents are not embarrassed if their favourite player came out as gay, while 74 percent would be happy to play alongside a bisexual teammate and 60 percent alongside a trans teammate. Although the charity’s director of programmes Liz Ward is pleased with the progress so far, she understands that there’s still a long way to go:

“We’ve realised that 2013 was a long time ago, football was very, very different, the Premier League was very, very different, the WSL was not professional.

“In that time we’ve won so much. We’ve seen players come out, every Premier League team takes art in Rainbow laces. We’ve seen fan attitudes change to whether or not you would support a gay footballer on your team”.

Despite this positivity, do Stonewall need to do more? After all, Ward realises that online hate is the “next challenge for the next 10 years”, due to the “sheer levels and volumes” of it. The hate Ward expresses could be seen through the Stonewall statistics that only 56 percent agreed that gay sportspeople are good role models, and only 35 percent agree that live sports events provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ fans.

Despite this campaign being a catalyst for breaking down barriers in sport, there’s an argument that this is one of the few movements to be transparent with their support all year round. This is where the idea of ‘rainbow washing’ is introduced, as many companies hop onto supporting the LGBT+ community for a short time period but then go silent for the rest of the year. As well as this, Stonewall has received it’s fair share of hate, as many campaigns do. Since its 1989 inception in response to a ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” by schools and councils in section 28 of the Local Government Act, Stonewall has been a part of every major struggle for the LGBT rights in the UK, but a couple of years back people started to question their stance on supporting trans rights, as this is something they missed out of their advocacy for over a decade after the 2004 Gender Recognition Act stated that someone could legally change their gender in the UK.

Although there has and continues to be controversy surrounding some actions by Stonewall, the introduction of rainbow laces was set out to offer inclusion for all in the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQIA+ Merchandise

Criticisms have further expanded into the football industry and how merchandise has been created specifically for events, and whether this is seen as a legitimate form of support or rather to promote the club for financial gain. Arsenal is a club that consistently shows their support for the LGBTQIA+ community, with a short video prior to each game highlighting how they stand against homophobia in the game- with the likes of Arsenal stars Kim Little and Aaron Ramsdale talking on the matter, as well as a few members from England’s largest LGBT+ football club supporters’ group ‘Gay Gooners’. Therefore, when the North London side unveiled their ‘Love Unites’ training kit last season (October 2022) their support didn’t come as a great shock to many.

The Pride collection was inspired by the Stonewall Activists of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, with a mixture of colours and prints to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community’s past and present.

Despite Arsenal, along with many other big clubs, raising awareness of key events throughout the season, it’s important to note the financial gain from this act. Every time someone would purchase a ‘Love Unites’ shirt- which is now unavailable on their website- or one of the other LGBTQIA+ items then Arsenal will make money. This is where the idea of marketing comes into play, as queer fans are more likely to be drawn to clubs that outwardly support their identities, so using their club badge along with phrases such as ‘Love is Love’ on merchandise is a clever strategy to gain following and money.

‘OneLove’ Armband

Another way in which clubs could arguably hop onto the ‘trend’ of supporting the community is through the rare appearance of the ‘OneLove’ armband, something Jordan Henderson has been familiar with in the past. Before going into depth into Henderson’s story, let’s take a look at the significance of the armband.

Created in 2020 to promote anti-discrimination, human rights, anti-racism and LGBTQIA+ rights, the ‘OneLove’ armband contains the rainbow colours associated with the Pride flag. On paper this is a great idea for Captains to lead by example and demonstrate their morals, however recent tournaments seem to prove that certain organisations put their profits over the people.

Starting with the 2022 Qatar World Cup, FIFA threatened sanctions to the captains if they wore it during the campaign. Given that the host nation were opposed to same-sex relationships, this decision aligns with their morals, so travelling teams had to respect this. Prior to the tournament nine nations, including England’s Harry Kane and Gareth Bale of Wales, had planned to wear the rainbow symbol on their kits to promote diversity and inclusion, but the idea that they could be fined or even removed from the pitch steered them away from this.

Although originally hoped for this to be another small action with a big impact, a OneLove joint statement revealed it’s empathy towards this tricky situation:

“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband.

“We are frustrated by the FIFA decision which we believe is unprecedented”.

After reaching out to FIFA ahead of the World Cup, they had no response.

This act from FIFA demonstrated that for teams to acknowledge the LGBTQIA+ community during the tournament, they would be punished, which reinforces the idea that money is the priority. Furthermore, not wearing the armband appeared to have a big impact on many, something which is arguably not replicated with rainbow laces. This is possibly due to the laces making an appearance once a year, so the significance is lowered.

Germany were one of many teams to outwardly express their support, despite not being able to wear the armband. Instead the team were captured with their hands over their mouths ahead of their 2-1 defeat against Japan to shoe “FIFA is silencing us”.

A tweet from the German federation read:

“We want to use our captain’s armband to take a stand for values that we hold in the Germany national team; diversity and mutual respect. Together with other nations, we wanted our voice to be heard.

“It wasn’t about making a political statement - human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position.”

Controversy surrounding the OneLove armband was also prominent in the most recent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Despite wearing the rainbow armband prior to the summer World Cup, FIFA revealed that players and teams were allowed to promote social causes of their choosing at their respective training bases as well as before and after games, but on-pitch messages will be penalised if they do not sit within the FIFA regulations.

Many players vocalised their views, with a collective sense of support no matter if they wore the armband or not. Georgia Stanway commented on the matter, revealing how the Lionesses entered the competition wanting to wear the armband, and that even if they weren’t allowed to, they knew that they wanted to.

Co-host’s Australian captain Sam Kerr added onto Stanway’s views by saying that she Would love to wear it”.

Kerr went onto explain during this press conference the support that the teams had for the cause, and how they were happy to select one of the eight available bands FIFA created:

  • Unite for Inclusion

  • Unite for Indigenous Peoples

  • Unite for Gender Equality

  • Unite for Peace

  • Unite for Education for All

  • Unite for Zero

  • Unite for Ending Violence Against Women

  • Football is Joy, Peace, Love, Hope and Passion

When looking into the Women’s Super League and more generally women’s football as a whole, being part of the LGBTQ+ community is more accepted and therefore more players are openly queer. Sam Kerr herself is openly part of the community, so to talk on this topic came with ease and relatability to fans also part of the queer community. However, this isn’t the case for many professionals in the men’s game, as touched on earlier. Scottish professional footballer Zandar Murray explained how he was “terrified” about his teammates finding out that he was gay, and concerned that they “wouldn’t understand”. Using his platform, Murray has spoken out about the importance of being able to be openly gay whilst playing football, and hopefully the more awareness spread- possibly through armbands, laces and merchandise- the more people will feel comfortable to be authentically themselves.

What may seem as hypocritical, especially looking back at the tournament with the knowledge that the teams didn’t wear the rainbow armband, was when the FIFA president Gianni Infantino said:

“Football unites the world and our global events, such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup, have a unique power to bring people together and provide joy, excitement and passion.

“But football does even more than that- it can shine the spotlight on very important causes in our society. After some very open talks with stakeholders, including member associations and players, we have decided to highlight a series of social causes- from inclusion to gender equality, from peace to ending hunger, from education to talking domestic violence- during all 64 matches at the FIFA Women’s World Cup”.

Was this a cover up for their financial motive?

No matter which way you look at it, it’s clear that the LGBTQIA+ doesn’t have a secure and safe place at FIFA tournaments yet, but with more sportspeople speaking out, we could be entering a new chapter in history. For Jordan Henderson however, hypocrisy is a world surrounding his decisions.

Jordan Henderson’s move

From being an ambassador for the LGBTQIA+ community, to moving to a league that opposes this role- has Henderson become one of the most hated footballer’s recently?

Jordan Henderson’s transfer from Liverpool to Saudi Arabian Pro League side Al Ettifaq surely has to be one of the most controversial stories of the summer. This being said, he first spoke to The Athletic and mentioned how his decision was a “positive thing”, which has understandably been met with a lot of criticism.

Why move to a country that criminalises homosexuality?

The short answer is money. Around £12 million to be precise.

There’s no denying the abundance of support and queer allyship that the England international has presented in the past, but choosing a place that reverts all the positivity and progress once made is confusing.

However, the obvious answer of financial gain that many have concluded can’t be seen in his interview with David Ornstein and Adam Crafton, as one explanation came from not feeling welcomed to remain at Liverpool:

“If one of those people said to me, ‘Now we want you to stay’, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And I have to then think about what’s next for me in my career. Now, that’s not to say that they forced me out of the club or they were saying they wanted me to leave but at no point did I feel wanted by the club or anyone to stay”.

As the conversation progressed, Henderson spoke on the backlash he received from the LGBTQIA+ community, and in response to wearing rainbow laces in a place that criminalises homosexuality he responded with:

“I wouldn’t rule that out”.

To make his viewpoint even more confusing, he added that he would also want to respect the Saudi Arabian culture- which one is it?

However, there is the debate that Henderson has gone above and beyond previously to this decision to make football a more inclusive space:

“I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. ‘I’ve spoken to people in the community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do”.

In his defence, players are constantly under scrutiny, so to have been an advocate in all the ways he stated above is applaudable. In the public eye, especially when many don’t like to merge football and politics, speaking out can be difficult, so the idea Henderson did all of this to supposedly reverse it with one decision can be hurtful.

Fast forward a few months to present day and Henderson continues to receive hate due to his decision.

Last month the 33 year old was booed by England fans in Wembley during a friendly match with Australia. Although he was disappointed, especially since he explained his reasonings, the midfielder did admit that he wasn’t exactly surprised by the hate he had been getting from fans:

“It’s not nice, your own fans, if they were booing. But people have their own opinions. Whenever I bump into anyone on the street it’s always been positive”.

So although Jordan Henderson backed Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign and was nominated for Football Ally at the LGBT+ Awards in 2021, the power of money can be seen to be more valuable than ensuring inclusivity is met in football. It could also highlight that the laces are losing value, as they’re seen as an accessory creates a conversation on a rare occasion, but don’t change mindsets and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, which is the key to progressing football.

So, are Rainbow Laces enough? As previously stated, it’s impossible for an accessory that is seen once a year to create a complete change in how the LGBTQIA+ community are represented in football. Since the introduction in 2013, the laces by themselves show hope, progression and transparency for having the right intentions, but without new ideas and adaptations to the campaign, could it be argued that Rainbow Laces are were effectively introduced last decade, but now have lost their purpose entering the next? As the landscape of football has shifted to being about money and power, smaller initiatives like this may get lost in a fast paced evolution for the game.

How much can Rainbow Laces do alone in the next decade?

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