THE first openly gay referee in the UK Ryan Atkin has said being “out” should hold no fears in football.
Atkin, 32, has had his say on the damaging effects of homophobia in the sport, saying it’s a problem, but things are getting better.
The match official – who will be undertaking fourth official duties in the EFL and National Leagues in 2017-18 – began refereeing in 1999 in his home town, Plymouth.
NOT PICKED YOUR FANTASY FOOTBALL TEAM YET? WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Now, 18 years later, Atkin has spoken out against homophobia in football, while suggesting things are slowly getting better.
Atkin told Sky Sports: “Being gay doesn’t matter in the context of refereeing a football match.
“But if I’m speaking about equality and diversity, then I’m going to mention that I’m gay because it’s relevant.
“Homophobia is still a problem, but things are improving all the time.
“You can change the game and culture when you change your mind.
Atkin added that pro-LGBT campaigns in recent seasons have been hugely encouraging, saying: “Undoubtedly, there has been good progress since I first started refereeing.
“The Rainbow Laces campaign has been hugely important.
“There is a growing number of club LGBT fan groups, and major sports brands such as adidas and Nike are helping to deliver the same message to wider audiences across the globe.
“I’d now like to see more players and referees helping to promote inclusion.
“That increased effort can go a long way in reaching even more communities.”
Atkin went on to say he is glad to be openly gay, as it means he is being true to himself and happy in his own skin – which he hopes will make him a better referee.
He said: “People who are happy in their own skin at work will perform better as a result; the same is true of professional sport.
“The best referees are the ones that bring their whole self to the match, officiating with their personality and ultimately improving their ability to get the decisions right.
“Clearly, this is a step into the unknown – in our UK pro game, it’s widely known that there are currently no openly gay footballers, nor have there been any openly gay referees until now.
“I hope that my action, however small, will help give others in a similar situation the confidence to be themselves.
“In a few years’ time, articles like this won’t be necessary.
“But until that point, all of us in football have a duty to create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable.
“It’s OK to be different and when we all truly believe that, we’ll start to move on.”
Meanwhile, Neale Barry – head of senior referee development at the FA – described Atkin’s comments as “an important moment”.
Barry claimed: “The FA offers its full backing to Ryan.
“Our role is to support all referees, aid their development, maximise their potential and, above all, help ensure their experiences are positive.
“Ryan’s declaration marks an important moment in the game and reinforces the fact that refereeing really is open to everyone.
“He’s stated that people who are happy in their own skin perform better – and I couldn’t agree more.”
EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey added: “The courageous decision taken by Ryan to publicly come out is one that should be admired by everyone across all levels of the game.
Keep up to date with ALL the football news, gossip, transfers and goals on our club page plus fixtures, results and live match commentary.
Have you signed up to play fantasy football yet?
If the answer is no you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.
Because the Dream Team game – the UK’s biggest fantasy football game – is back and better than ever this season.
You’ve got a £50m budget to pick 11 players, with all the biggest new signings ready and raring to go ahead of a mouthwatering new Premier League campaign.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up to play now!