Jake Daniels is finding space and providing assists by coming out publicly as gay in football

Published by Jon Holmes on

A prolific scorer for Blackpool at youth-team level, Daniels is freeing himself from the weight of the closet in readiness for his pro career; sharing his story is courageous and will help other male footballers who are gay or bi; role of media again under scrutiny after player’s personal news was indelicately trailed in advance by a tabloid newspaper and other outlets

By Jon Holmes

Blackpool’s Jake Daniels is the first footballer in the British men’s game to come out publicly as gay or bi while professionally contracted

Concentrating on his run, stealing in between two defenders, and then cleverly lifting a shot over the ‘keeper, Jake Daniels scored an excellent goal at Stamford Bridge this season.

It was Blackpool’s opener in their FA Youth Cup quarter-final tie against Chelsea, finished deftly after a dynamic run and delivery from winger Arnold Matshazi. The goal would later be named the Academy’s Moment of the Season.

Watching it back on YouTube, the Chelsea TV match summariser Sam Parkin can be heard congratulating Jake on his “great composure”. On Sky Sports News on Monday, this self-assurance was evident in an entirely different way as the striker described the happiness he feels since coming out as gay to his family, friends and team-mates, and why he is taking the courageous step to share such personal news publicly.

Jake’s goal at the Bridge was one of 30 he contributed at Under-19 level during the campaign, which culminated in a professional contract, a first-team debut, and a deal with adidas.

Monday’s news is further cause for celebration. Jake is setting himself up for a promising future by shrugging off the mental health pressures that being in the closet brings.

Jake Daniels spoke to Sky Sports News’ Tim Thornton at Bloomfield Road

We know this is an issue for gay and bi players in men’s football because others who have come out publicly have told us as much. “During my time at Newcastle Jets, before accepting myself, I carried a sense of inadequacy and shame everywhere I went,” wrote Australian striker Andy Brennan last October.

“This weight resulted in a deep self-consciousness and feeling of worthlessness in my playing ability. At times, I defeated myself before I had a chance to succeed.”

Accepting yourself is pivotal, but then new pressures emerge, particularly when you are immersed in an environment that is male-dominated, intensely competitive and inherently conformist. In December, Josh Cavallo told The Athletic’s Adam Crafton how hard it was to try to live a “double life” when you are in and around men’s team sports every day and constantly wasting energy on simply trying to fit in. “As a professional athlete, you cannot have distractions like this.”

In Jake’s Sky interview, he mentions how the day after coming out to his mum and sister, he went and scored four goals in a 7-3 win over Accrington in the EFL Youth Alliance. “I’m starting to really understand the player and person I am,” he told the club website after that game.

Having extra headspace is such a boost for Jake as he steps up to Championship level. Fully focused, he’ll be a better team-mate too, and there’s another benefit for Blackpool in knowing that the culture within their club is inclusive.

They have big plans to switch from Squires Gate to a new state-of-the-art training facility and will be desperate to have retained one of their brightest prospects by the time that move comes. Jake saying he “feels safe” as a result of the Seasiders’ “amazing” support is a ringing endorsement.

You might think that all of this could have remained in house. It’s certainly more than enough for any teenager to handle, let alone one starting out in professional football. However, standing out doesn’t faze Jake. “I want people to hear my story,” he says.

That motive to be visible can be difficult for others to understand, often eliciting reactions such as ‘who cares?’ and accusations of attention-seeking. It’s really a by-product of two things – the confidence you get from a good experience when coming out to your immediate circle, and recognising how you can be a positive influence.

Brennan, Cavallo, Robbie Rogers and Collin Martin have made significant contributions in recent years in terms of being out on the pitch, alongside former professionals like Thomas Hitzlsperger and Thomas Beattie and in British non-league football, Matt Morton and Liam Davis. To varying degrees, all their stories made headlines; what was universal was the empowering message of authenticity that each of them shared.

That Jake has come out publicly at the age of 17 demonstrates how the landscape today looks very different for so many LGBTQ+ young people compared to even a decade ago. He’s part of Generation Z – the demographic that includes teenagers – and an Ipsos survey in 2021 found that 18% of 16-to 25-year-olds across 27 countries, including Britain, identified as something other than straight. For all adults surveyed, ranging from age 16 to 74, the percentage was half that.

In terms of coming out, a separate study into how Gen Z boys who are gay or bi express themselves was undertaken by the American Psychological Association last year. Two-thirds or 66% were out to their mother or female guardian; in the 1990s, that figure was only around 40%.

We can see therefore that it’s more common today for teenage boys – inevitably including some who are very sporty – to not just acknowledge their sexuality but also trust that information with those who are close to them.

Representation really does matter. I can just about remember when I was 17 and wanting to go into football journalism, but I saw nobody in the industry at that time who was gay and out. Furthermore, it was around that same time that Justin Fashanu tragically took his own life.

A quarter of a century has passed and we’re now talking about a young player who’s happy, confident, starting out on a pro career and happens to be gay. It’s important for us all to know the history, understand the present, and look forward to the future.

Jake’s story is for him to articulate, which is why it was so disappointing to see it ‘teased’ by way of a tabloid newspaper article at the weekend, with other outlets quickly rushing to publish versions of their own. Sports Media LGBT+ has addressed this in a thread of tweets; we would argue strongly that trailing a mystery teenager’s personal news in this way and inevitably creating gossip as to who they might be is wholly irresponsible.

That is certainly not the main takeaway from Jake’s story, though. The hallmarks are confidence, joy, and of course Pride, plus perhaps a little Heartstopper-esque happiness similar to that we feel when watching Nick Nelson come out to his mum.

“Thank you for telling me,” she says. “I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that.” For too long, the culture of men’s football has made gay and bi players feel that way. It might not be a memorable goal or a famous victory but this is certainly a moment to celebrate, for Jake and for the game.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor