Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Brazil Gay Football Players

Perhaps just a quickie for this one.

One of my favourite radio programmes is More or Less, a mathematics and statistics programme produced by the BBC. I heartily recommend the podcast, which I adore. A shout out to regular presenter Tim Harford, who is brilliant, funny, quirky and fascinating. Another shout out to series producer and frequent guest presenter Ruth Alexander, who has one of the most beautiful voices ever to tickle my eardrums.

Gay Football PlayerThe program styles itself as a guide to the numbers "in the news and in life", and is very, very good at sniffing out numerically dubious reports in the news, claims by politicians, and interesting angles on problems, such as the Tuesday Boy problem, or the wonderful question (answered definitively): if you stacked a 4x4 Lego brick on another one, then added another, and another, how tall would the stack become before the bottom brick is crushed by the weight of the stack on top? (*)

So one of the questions they tackled was this: how many gay professional football players are there? (Of course, you know I mean soccer when I say football). How many can you think of? Not many, I'll bet. The most recent openly gay professional footballer in Britain was Justin Fashanu, and that was 20 years ago. Wikipedia devotes a whole article to the question. Football statistician Bill Edgar, of The Times did some analysis.

First, Edgar made the assumption that the rate of homosexuality among professional footballers was the same as in the general male population. He found varying estimates of the prevalence of homosexuality, so chose the lowest reasonable estimate he could find: 1.5% (see my discussion here), which is still a bit higher than the 1% figure which I suggest.

Looking specifically at Premier League football players, there have been 3,200 of them in the last 20 years. The statistical chance of none of those men being gay is 1 in 1 thousand million million million; 1 in 10 to the power of 23.

Gay Football Player
Okay, so numbers this large make my head hurt. What does that mean? More or Less says it means that if the whole Earth's surface were covered in white drawing pins touching edge to edge. and just one of them were red, the chance of you picking the red one, at random, is 200 times higher than the chance of there not being a gay footballer somewhere in the Premier League over the last 20 years.

So, mathematically speaking, we can say it is exceptionally unlikely that there hasn't been a gay footballer in the Premier League. We cannot, of course, say how many there have been; we cannot know if the prevalence of homosexuality in Premier League footballers is the same as in the general male population.

It may mean, of course, that gay men are excluded, either overtly or covertly, from the Premier League. It may mean that gay men can become professional footballers, but remain in the closet for fear of hostility from fans, managers, clubs, or media. And Justin Fashanu's career definitely suffered after he came out.

What it shows to me is that acceptance of homosexuality is not as far forward as we all like to think it is. This is bad news for any group seeking integration and equality with what we like to call the "general population".

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