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Saturday, October 29, 2011
FIFA must stand up for gay rights

By Sarah Spain

Back in July, soccer fans heaped praise and attention on the U.S. women's national team as it made a great run in the World Cup. People snatched up Hope Solo and Abby Wambach jerseys, threw watch parties for the team's biggest matches and posted a record 7,196 tweets per second about the finale against Japan. Months later, Solo remains in the spotlight on "Dancing With the Stars" and Wambach was just named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation.

The impact of the 2011 World Cup on U.S. soccer and women's sports has been simply golden, even if the medals the team took home were silver.

Of course, with every silver lining comes a dark cloud. The world's soccer spotlight proved harsh for the Nigerian women's national team, nicknamed the Super Falcons, and head coach Eucharia Uche, as it shined a light on deep-seated discrimination and homophobia within the Nigerian Football Federation.

Just before the start of the World Cup, a New York Times article exposed Uche's troubling stance on homosexuality. She told the Times she has used religion to try to rid her team of homosexuality, and in the past she has called the presence of lesbians on her team a "worrisome experience" and labeled homosexuality a "dirty issue."

"The issue of lesbianism is common," Uche told the paper in June. "I came to realize it is not a physical battle; we need divine intervention in order to control and curb it. I tell you it worked for us. This is a thing of the past. It is never mentioned."

Uche's comments caught the eye of AllOut.org, an international group dedicated to the promotion and protection of LGBT rights. AllOut organized a flash-mob protest during the World Cup semifinal match in Frankfurt on July 13, hoping to encourage FIFA to better enforce its policies on discrimination. There was a great deal of media coverage leading up to the protest, which coincided with FIFA's annual anti-discrimination day.

"The thing [the protest announcement] really prompted," explains AllOut cofounder Andre Banks, "was FIFA put out a statement saying that they condemn homophobia. They actually had never made a statement specifically about homophobia, so that was the first time they did that, in response to our campaign."

It was a start, but AllOut and the nearly 50,000 people who signed a petition asking for FIFA to take action against Uche wanted to see more. In September, FIFA proved its statement wasn't hollow by announcing a formal investigation into Uche's comments and practices as coach of the Super Falcons.

A FIFA representative sent me the following statement about the ongoing investigation:

"FIFA has replied to these organisations asking them to provide all evidence and documentation at their disposal regarding Ms. Uche and her alleged declarations and actions, so that the FIFA Disciplinary Committee can properly analyse the issue to determine if a breach of the regulations of FIFA has been committed and take the appropriate measures."

Banks believes the timing of the investigation, months after the Cup ended and when the media is no longer badgering FIFA about the issue, proves it is a serious one and not merely something to keep AllOut and other human-rights groups quiet.

"Our hope," he told me, "is that they come out with an even stronger statement about the disciplinary procedures for the coaches who are found to be either purging gay and lesbian players from their team or making negative statements about them."

Article 3 of FIFA's current Statutes reads, in part, " ... discrimination of any kind ... on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion."

As it turns out, FIFA won't have to make a major statement in the form of a suspension or firing. Uche's tenure as head coach of the national team ended Monday as the Nigerian Football Federation announced that her contract would not be renewed. The decision to part ways with Uche came on the heels of the team's loss to Cameroon last Sunday, which kept the Super Falcons out of the 2012 Olympics.

Ideally, a new coach will usher in a more open and accepting era for Nigerian soccer.

As for the investigation into Uche, it would be a shame for FIFA to hide behind her termination and avoid taking a stand against the homophobia that plagues international soccer. If FIFA wants to make its practice mirror what it preaches, it needs to make an example of Uche. Continuing to do the bare minimum when it comes to gay rights shouldn't be acceptable from an organization that's done so much more to combat other forms of discrimination.

One could argue that FIFA's half-hearted efforts on behalf of gay rights are the result of the man in charge, Sepp Blatter.

Just last December, when the FIFA president was asked about the safety of gay fans traveling to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, he cracked, "I'd say they should refrain from any sexual activities." The comment may not reflect Blatter's overall opinion of gay rights, but at the very least it was a tremendously irresponsible response considering Qatar's criminalization of homosexuality.

Banks, for one, isn't worried about how Blatter might influence FIFA's official stance.

"It's not about individuals and their personal feelings or what they said right or wrong in the past," he told me. "It's more about what & [FIFA's] official position will be as the international governing body of soccer. When people spoke up around the world and said this is not what we want to see from soccer, this isn't why we come to the matches, [FIFA was] forced to respond and to respond in a way that reflects the audience for the games."

The only way to truly reflect not only the soccer audience but also the players who make up the teams is to take a stand against Uche. FIFA must release strong statements condemning her words and practices, add language specific to gay rights to its statutes and enforce harsher penalties for discrimination of any kind.

Uche may not have a job to lose, but FIFA can help take away her voice and the voice of those who make soccer an unsafe or uncomfortable place for LGBT players and fans.