Tommy Martin: Jake Daniels shows us all what a real man looks like

Jake is a 17-year-old Blackpool striker, with nine minutes of Championship football under his belt, who became the UK’s first active male professional footballer to come out in over three decades
Tommy Martin: Jake Daniels shows us all what a real man looks like

Blackpool's Jake Daniels during the Sky Bet Championship match between Peterborough United and Blackpool at London Road Stadium on May 7, 2022 in Peterborough, England. (Photo by Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images)

You’ll hear about the doings of a lot of famous sportspeople this week but none of them will do anything as important as Jake Daniels.

Jake is a 17-year-old Blackpool striker, with nine minutes of Championship football under his belt, who became the UK’s first active male professional footballer to come out in over three decades. 

His story is both profoundly uplifting and deeply depressing. How brilliant that professional football and society at large has inched slowly towards a level of tolerance that would permit his decision. How terrible that so few others feel the same.

Daniels has been enthusiastically praised within his profession. Jurgen Klopp, the go-to guy for football quotes on real world issues, summed up the reaction. 

”Fantastic that he feels brave enough to do that,” Klopp said. “The whole football community will support him with whatever we can do, I am 100 per cent sure."

The irony of an openly gay footballer being championed for his courage might not be lost on Daniels. Discussing male football’s great taboo in his interview with Sky Sports, Daniels said “I think it comes down to a lot of footballers wanting to be known [for] masculinity, and I think being gay, a lot of people use it as being weak.” 

If courage is the sort of stereotypically masculine quality normally prized in male sports, then Daniels has shown vastly more of it than even the most battle-scarred centre-half sticking his head in where others would not put their boot. After all, the decision to come out is all about overcoming fear, finding courage, confronting danger. 

The threat of physical and emotional suffering is what must be weighed up. Does it amount to less than the inherent pain of living a lie? Making that so is the job of a tolerant society, and something at which male sport has failed dismally.

Perhaps campaigns like the Premier League’s ‘Rainbow laces’ initiative and the well-meaning words of countless prominent figures are having an impact. Maybe Daniels will spark a ‘domino effect’, in the words of Simone Pound, the Professional Footballers’ Association’s director of equality, diversity and inclusion, who sees in Daniels and the Australian player Josh Cavallo (who came out last year) the beginnings of a generational shift.

But intolerance knots its way stubbornly through this changing landscape. On the day of Daniels’ announcement, Blackpool’s captain Marvin Ekpetita was forced to delete and apologise for homophobic tweets he posted back in 2013, when he was about the same age Daniels is now. 

Ekpetita said he had "developed and grown as a person" in the years since and that the comments "do not in any way reflect the values I hold now". 

Change in action, perhaps, but not ideal from the skipper, Clive.

And if Daniels’ news marks a happy ending to the traditional English football calendar, remember how it started – with Liverpool fans being condemned for ‘rent boy’ chants directed at Billy Gilmour of Norwich City, on the same day that Derby supporters were accused of homophobic and racist abuse during a game at Peterborough.

The toxic nether regions of fan culture might seem like no place to get a read on wider societal attitudes, but when it’s your place of work you take it into account.

Neither are broader institutional values without question. Take this stomach-churning tweet: “Football is for everyone. Newcastle United and the whole football community is with you, Jake!”

Yes, the club owned by a regime in which homosexuality is punishable by whipping, imprisonment and execution is with you, Jake! 

By the way Jake, don’t forget that the Premier League permitted the Saudi takeover of Newcastle, so seriously do they take their equality agenda. So yeah, rainbow laces!

Of course, no inventory of homophobic incidents can illustrate more clearly how hostile an environment male football remains than that pitifully short list of those who have come out. Soccer is a global sport with an audience of billions, yet you can count the number of gay footballers among on the fingers of one hand.

Admittedly, the sport reaches into cultures where LGBTQ+ rights are limited or non-existent, but look closer to home, in supposedly tolerant Ireland. The number of openly gay male sports stars is similarly microscopic, 13 years after Donal Óg Cusack broke the mould. 

That David Gough, the current most high-profile gay man in Irish sport, is a referee – someone who doesn’t actually inhabit the mythical dressing room – says everything.

Gough addressed this issue on Virgin Media’s The Tonight Show last year. "There are a huge amount of people, not only inside the GAA, but in elite sport in Ireland that are afraid to come out…The question needs to be asked: Why? Why are they struggling and what are the issues? What are the barriers that are stopping them coming out?

"That's only 10 per cent of the athletes in the country [who are gay]," he said. "There's 90 per cent of the athletes playing who are straight. What sort of environment have they created that makes people feel unsafe in coming out? The silence from that side of the house is deafening. They need to create opportunities themselves to show that they are allies, and that coming out in their sport is totally acceptable.

"A lot of young males drop out of sport very early on - particularly team sports - because they find the environment intimidating, and they find they don't fit in."

As Gough – and Jake Daniels – suggest, the problem is with males and masculinity and the stubbornly old-school notions of what these things should be. There are no such barriers in female sport. 

Making elite sport welcoming for gay males to come out is one thing, but helping change things for those young boys that Gough talks about – the ones turned off sport in the first place by all the caveman stuff – requires the real courage.

And if anyone is in any doubt, just point to Jake Daniels see what a real man looks like.

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