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A new dawn for diversity in the footballing world?

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Watching Jake Daniels sit down with Sky Sports in May 2022 felt otherworldly.

It had been so long since the late Justin Fashanu was pushed into taking his own life in 1998 that it had begun to feel like we may never see another openly gay player in the hyper-masculine world of men’s football.

Yet this brave, young man broke a new dawn. The stories of players, managers and referees coming out is ever increasing and even the British press, traditional bottom-feeders more interested in drama than diversity, seem to be on-board as we leave that world in our wake.

The landing equipment has deployed, the door has swung open and we’re tentatively walking down the ladder, ready to take those first few steps onto the great, celestial orb of actual diversity in the sport.

It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for Murdoch’s rags.

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“The game just wasn’t prepared to have those conversations”

Jon Holmes is a media consultant, the founder of SportsMediaLGBT+ and a former Sky Sports journalist who, thanks to his connections at the organisation, was instrumental in the breaking of Daniels’ story.

He kindly gives me far too much time out of his busy schedule to talk through how the landscape has changed; from the days of tabloids working shamelessly to ‘out’ the next football star to creating an optimism-rich atmosphere where football professionals are able to live their authentic lives.

He talks to me about the sports industry he first walked into at the start of his career: 

“From the point of view of being LGBT it was very difficult. In the early 2000s it was a very male-dominated, heteronormative workplace with very few women working there and next to no diversity. It was very similar to that ‘locker room’ culture that we talk about in men’s football where comments are made, jokes are made and often minority groups end up on the thin end of the wedge.

“Even the campaigns that we’re very familiar with now like Football Vs Homophobia didn’t start until 2009/2010, Rainbow Laces came around the time that Thomas Hitzlsperger came out [in 2014].

“So with all these things the game just wasn’t prepared to have those conversations. In Football Vs Homophobia’s first month of action only around 10% of clubs engaged in the campaign [..] all the others just said: ‘There’s no need to do it, we don’t have a problem.’

“There was this massive ignorance around the topic and the extension of that was football newsrooms would have been exactly the same.”


Jon Holmes appearing on Sky Sports News. Pic courtesy of Jon Holmes


And so Jon, backed by his pro-diversity bosses at Sky Sports,  set up SportsMediaLGBT+ to connect queer sports journalists. In their first meet-up the group only had 13 attendees, but the network now boasts over 60 active members with a number of the industry’s biggest names working in some of the most reputed newsrooms around the country.

However, Jon is keen to point out it’s been a slow process, that the trust you need to build with people takes time to develop and that still the group doesn’t reach as many newsrooms as he’d like.

“It’s not like we started up and were suddenly inundated by all of these LGBT people saying ‘yeah I want to be part of your group’. They take a bit of a watching brief, look at it from afar and follow it on socials… It’s a bit of a slow burn. You have to reach out to people, invite them in and then the group has its own evolution.”



“People want to work in an inclusive environment”

Understanding that there is a slowly evolving network of LGBT+ journalists who are building relationships with each other based on trust, how does that manifest change? How has the sports media industry gone from reflecting men’s football’s locker rooms to being a space in which many sports professionals have felt comfortable enough to publicly come out?

“In our industry there’s a real symbiotic relationship between content and culture because the people that lead these spaces are editors and commissioners, and ultimately they want to retain and attract good, talented journalists.

“People want to work in an inclusive environment where everyone is valued and if you don’t feel you’ve got a voice or if you don’t feel like people like you are being represented on screen or on digital, then that’s going to affect you and you’re not going to feel comfortable in that space.”

Jon mentions before we say our goodbyes that it’s a nuanced issue, that there are a lot of small factors that must all pull in the right direction in order to effect change. Indeed, the interconnectedness between workplace culture, content angles and visibility has meant progress can sometimes feel slow and hard to perceive as each piece of the puzzle needs to fall into place before another can slot in.

And yet, in 2023 it feels like we are finally beginning to see that picture.

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“It’s actually really quite sad that it takes someone 31 years of their life to feel able to share their story”

“Strong willed”, “unfazed by unpopularity” and “confident” are three terms that Lloyd Wilson describes himself as within the first five minutes of speaking to him over zoom. And by the end of our 38 minute conversation it’s hard to argue with that description.

The 32 year-old Scot has officiated games in the Scottish Championship and been a fourth official in the Scottish Premiership, and he clearly isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Yet it’s hard to ignore that for someone so forthright, it did take him until June of last year to speak publicly about his own sexuality. This juxtaposition is something he’s all too aware of:

“I didn’t come out publicly until I was about 31 and it’s actually really quite sad that it takes someone 31 years of their life to feel able to share their story with other people. And I don’t just mean sharing it with a newspaper platform… I suppose that’s how long it took for me to be confident in myself.

“I think football is making huge progress, but football was also one of the things that significantly contributed to my closeted journey”

We chat more about this ‘closeted journey’ and it’s clear that the perceived juxtaposition of Lloyd’s strong character with his discomfort at his sexuality perhaps isn’t the contradiction that it may at first appear. The idea that football contributed to being closeted is wrapped up in the traditional notions of masculinity that persist within the sport and he suggests that he felt the need to “act” in a certain way to fit in. 


“Surely that’s a given that we can talk about equality?”

Lloyd speaks candidly about the anxiety of being outed as ‘Lloyd Wilson – The Gay Referee’; he says he still harbours fears of that exact headline appearing on front pages. So I wonder how he views his relationship with the media, how it drove those anxieties of being outed and the role he feels it has for him now, as a publicly out sports professional.

“The media here are massive and I don’t think there were enough people willing to speak up in the media who were gay. [Journalists] will often say ‘my boss is right behind this story’, but why should they need to ‘be right behind this’? Surely that’s a given that we can talk about equality?!

“I think sometimes there has historically been some red tape that’s stopped people being able to talk about being gay […] But now, I think the media are actually trying very hard to positively pitch why it’s completely normal and acceptable to be gay in football.

“My experience of the media with my story has actually been excellent, they’ve been really supportive of me and from every producer to journalist to apprentice, everybody has been great.”

I ask, how we got to this point and Lloyd’s answer is typically passionate:

“How have we come this far? I think it’s visibility. People don’t always ‘get visibility’, [they think] ‘you’ve had your story and move on’ – No! It’s about not stopping talking about it!”

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With Lloyd’s words ringing in my ears I consider how his experiences of coming out publicly in 2022 relate to Jon’s efforts to drive change inside the media.

While it may be an oversimplification to attribute his positive experiences solely to the work of groups like SportsMediaLGBT+, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between this newfound press interest in sharing stories like Lloyd’s, and Jon’s work to encourage colleagues to produce more diverse content.

Ultimately, the world of football is almost unrecognisable to the one that Jon first started writing about in those male-dominated newsrooms in the 00s, but we really are still only taking those first steps into a brave, more tolerant new one… The race for inclusive spaces in football continues.



  • Paddy Knowles

    Football writer and occasional dipper of toes into other sports. Usually writing articles that are less funny than hoped with the odd pseudo-intellectual deconstruction of modern day football. Charlton Athletic Football Club fan, for my sins.