Playing Straight? What is the show about and how did it come about?

The ‘lack’ of gay footballers has long troubled me, and in Playing Straight I explore why soccer players from the grassroots to the highest leagues don’t come out and find out what makes the ‘people’s game’, a straight game. It came about when the Mirror in the UK last year printed a front page article stating that two English players were going to come out at the end of the season. It didn't start a discussion, it launched a witch hunt. Players were denying they were gay, the bookmakers were taking bets on who was and now that time has come and gone, nobody came out.

We spoke to Stephen Byrne on The LifeStyle Show on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra - Listen below>
He spoke about Playing Straight, homophobia in football, his own experience on the field and his plans for the future

It's a very personal programme for you and your Dad - can you tell us why?

Football growing up was everything for me. I could name every player, collected every sticker book, watched every game. If I wasn’t playing FIFA I was outside on the pitch at the back of my parent’s house practicing, playing out the commentary in my head. I played for Cabinteely FC from the age of 8 and when I turned 11 my dad became my manager. Our relationship has always been cemented around football so when I started to question my sexuality around the age of 16 I started to feel alienated in the game. I used to lie in bed praying to a god I didn’t believe in, asking him to make me straight. I didn’t end up coming out until I was 20. At that time the only gay player who had come out was Justin Fashanu in 1990. He was given a horrific reaction and tragically died by suicide in 1998. 

Our relationship has always been cemented around football so when I started to question my sexuality around the age of 16 I started to feel alienated in the game.

 

Homophobia in football - who would have thought this is still going on?

Completely, but it's very unique to the sport. Football is tribal and fuelled by machismo. It really is a religion to so many people around the world. Their club’s colours pump through their veins. We spent some time travelling around stadiums in the UK talking to fans and I was taken aback at how open they were about their use of homophobic language. Also, any fans told us that they would abuse a rival player if they came out and that they would make their life hell from the terraces. Because of all of this nobody wants to talk about the subject. I contacted every club in the top two English divisions and only one manager wanted to talk about it. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing and it literally makes them get incredibly awkward like its a dirty little secret. 

We think after the beautiful result of same-sex marriage referendum that we've moved on but it seems we have a way to go?

Some call it the last bastion of homophobia but I wouldn't say that, there is a long way to go in every corner of society but football is definitely somewhat trapped in time. With Ireland, the UK and the US approving gay marriage it helps us here but some of the biggest clubs in the world like Manchester United have huge business in countries where even being gay is still illegal. 

What was the biggest joy that came out of making Playing Straight?

Its been tough, really tough. The biggest joy for me was being able to relate my struggle as a teenager to come out even more to football, I understand myself more now from it. 

The biggest disappointment?

The biggest disappointments came in finding out that nobody in the bubble of the game want to talk about it. They're either too scared of saying something wrong, deny that its a problem or blame someone else. Cracking that world was very tough as you'll see.

Who should watch the programme?

This definitely isn't just for football fans. Its a lot bigger than that and there is a very human side to it in feeling like you don't belong somewhere.

Has Playing Straight made you want to make more TV docs? 

Very much so, I have plenty ideas but I do want to continue talking about this subject outside of the tv world and hopefully campaign alongside the people who are doing brilliant work at the moment. 

TMI - were you delighted with the response? What's next on that front?

TMI went brilliant! That was two years of my life for one episode so it really meant a lot to me!Right now its a waiting game. Hopefully we will come back with a full series next year!