Adam Crafton: “If you’re not emotionally engaged and invested, I don’t know if you should really be doing it.”

There are not many journalists out there who have written such unique articles at the intersection of LGBTQIA+ and sport as Adam Crafton.

The Athletic’s writer has popped up several times over the last couple of years with in-depth features, including pieces on the life – not the death – of Justin Fashanu, what it’s like to be LGBTQIA+ in Saudi Arabia and Poland, and a sit down interview with Josh Cavallo.

Since those pieces, the landscape has changed in terms of queer visibility in men’s football in particular. Jake Daniels became the first active British player to come out in the men’s game since Fashanu decades ago, while Scottish referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson revealed they were gay before just last month, Gala Fairydean Rovers striker Zander Murray joined them in representing the community.

Crafton’s reaction to those various announcements may not be what you would expect, though.

“I’ve not really thought about what it means to me,” he explained.

“I thought about what it means to other people. With someone like Jake Daniels, the age he was is what I found extraordinary – 17 years old when he came out. That kind of confidence and authority he had to tell his story in the way that he did was obviously incredibly powerful. The response to him was very positive.

“With Zander Murray, I don’t want to play down what it means, what it is in his life and there’s a big significance for it being the first men’s Scottish footballer to come out at any level of the professional game.

Zander Murray became the first Scottish men’s professional player to come out last month.

“What did that mean to me personally? Not a huge amount if I’m honest, and this is where it’s a bit of a me problem.

“I live in London, I have a lot of gay friends and feel very comfortable in my sexuality, so sometimes I can fall into that trap. ‘Oh, someone’s come out here, someone’s come out there’, and I almost forget the significance of what that actually means in the moment, the environment that that person’s in.

“I lose that perspective slightly, so that’s something I need to be better at sometimes. The Jake Daniels one felt significant at the time, but I think we will still have hope that someone comes along that we’ve all heard of before they’re gay, rather than it being someone who becomes known because they’re gay.

“Luckily, it all makes things a more promising environment. What I really liked about the Zander Murray one was a column in one of the Scottish newspapers by (Kilmarnock manager) Derek McInnes talking about the changes in dressing rooms that he’s been in.

“As a moment in time, I almost found that more powerful. For a player of Derek McInnes’ generation to be writing a column like that, that is progress for him to want to do that, to feel proud of doing that.

“In much the same way, a few years ago Graeme Souness went to a pride event. I think it was in Brighton, it might have been a Paddy Power thing, but it worked really well. To see Graeme Souness go there and listen, want to be part of it and learn and want to share that experience – I know different people have very different views on Graeme Souness, and I think some of the criticism he’s received over the years has been fair, but I found that incredibly powerful because when you have different generations wanting to listen and learn from younger generations, that’s how you get multi-generational progress.

“Don’t ever forget that the people who are running sports and institutions and federations and governments are not my age. They have very different lives, very different experiences. They’re often from a certain demographic, which is usually white, male, and pretty privileged.

“They see the world through their eyes, so therefore whether it’s Derek McInnes writing a column or whether it’s Graeme Souness going to a Pride march and listening to people, it all makes a difference because it starts to break down those boundaries and open doors.”

Writing about LGBTQIA+ issues

Daniels’ age when coming out particularly struck a chord with Crafton because the latter was years older before coming out.

That may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with his story, who are now able to see him as one of the most prolific writers in mainstream publications on the issue of LGBTQIA+ inclusion in sport.

However, even after coming out it took a while for him to build the confidence to put pen to paper on issues affecting the community.

“I wasn’t one of those teenagers who has a really great secret gay life, going out and meeting boys, I just completely hid it,” Crafton recalled.

“It was just a part of me that I wasn’t going to respond to. My way of controlling it was always putting myself 1,000,000% into some other thing in my life – whether that’s academia, work, sport or whatever – and overcompensate in other aspects.

“There’s a really good book by Matthew Todd called Straight Jacket where he talks about over-performance in academia by young gay guys, because it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of escape from a social life which is a little bit scary as an environment, and therefore you just concentrate really, really hard on your school work – or whatever sport they’re playing, but then that becomes complicated as well.

“Writing about LGBT+ issues was a confidence that kind of grew I would say. Sometimes people think ‘you left the Daily Mail and then you went to The Athletic and you have more freedom to write about those things’, but I think that’s a little bit simplistic.

“I would say I didn’t understand issues of sexuality well enough to be writing about them when I was 23, 24 or 25 at the Daily Mail. My whole perspective of sexuality, politics, the entangling of those things, I didn’t understand them well enough. The way I saw the world was very, very different at that time. I only really came to understand that as I met more people and read more things.

“I definitely feel guilty, because I went through basically my whole education, apart from the last three months of university, cheating. One of my best friends who has been out since the age of like 13 or 14, he went to school and took the shit that that was associated with that. He endured the bullying that came with it, having to move schools, whereas I just kind of got away with it.

“I was with a group of friends that didn’t know gay people basically. It was people who like sport, and I never felt under threat. People say ‘oh, it must have been so hard not being out’, and no, it wasn’t, I had a great time.

“I then look at that friend who had those horrible experiences, but he also had experiences like going on first dates when he was 16 or 17, maybe younger, going through those stages of relationships and heartbreak, gaining a kind of romantic and sexual maturity to a certain extent, which I would argue in my case has been delayed.

“That means that I end up treating myself and treating people who have been in my life since I’ve come out almost with a delayed maturity. I’m making the mistakes that I should probably have made when I was 15, 16 or 17 when I’m 22, 23 or 24 when it comes to how you deal with having a crush on someone, how you break up with someone, how you speak to people that you’re meant to care about, all those kinds of things. I’m not trying to make excuses – and to be clear, I’m not doing anything particularly bad.

“Do I feel like I have something to sort of overcompensate for having cheated a bit when I was a teenager? Yeah, a little bit, I would say that. Equally, the stories I’ve written about LGBT+ issues are almost always because I think they are good news stories. I don’t mean good news stories as in feel good, I mean in the journalistic sense – they are not just ‘I want to read that because it’s about a gay thing’, it’s ‘I want to read that because it’s relevant and original’. Whatever topic I’m writing about, I want to be relevant and original.

“If that happens to be Newcastle being taken over, and we’re looking for an angle that no one else has done, let’s have a look at what life is like in Saudi Arabia for LGBT+ people. That was a really current news event, and I kept seeing these articles where nobody was really explaining these issues, so I just wanted to speak to people that didn’t get a voice in their own country or in the coverage of the takeover, that were being mentioned but not heard.

“People think I spent months and months on that, but it was really a very intense 10-day process. It was actually very overwhelming, and I had a period after writing about that where I was quite hard to engage with from a work point of view.

“My everyday work is not writing about abuse, discrimination, torture and cure therapy, so I found it very difficult to move one from that concept of life and death and back to things like ‘what’s going on with Cristiano Ronaldo this week’, which are really essential to what we do.

“That’s probably what I learned most, how to compartmentalise things, but if you lose that sense of being affected by the people you’re dealing with then you’re in quite a lot of trouble as a journalist. If you’re not emotionally engaged and invested, I don’t know if you should really be doing it.”

Lasting newsworthiness?

One of the common threads between the various comings out in British football this year has been the idea of working towards a time when a men’s footballer being gay is no longer newsworthy.

That speaks to a concept of normalisation, but Crafton doesn’t necessarily see why one should lead to the other.

Instead, he is quite happy for footballers coming out to make headlines as long as it continues to have an impact on people’s lives – which he doesn’t see changing any time soon.

“If they’re going to be impactful, they’re newsworthy,” he reasoned.

“People always say ‘we’ll know the progress when it’s not news anymore’, as though we’re going to have a time where you’ve got teams with six gay players in their starting line-up like Pep Guardiola has brought over a load of Spanish players. That’s never going to be the case. It’s always going to be a very, very small number within, for example, the Premier League. That’s just the reality.

“I don’t think it will stop being newsworthy for quite a long time, and I also don’t worry that much about it being newsworthy because I think the more visible role models we have, the easier the lives of the next generation become. The more people in public doing their thing, while at the same time being comfortable in their sexuality, the better that is because I didn’t have that growing up – and certainly not in sport.

“It was only really a couple of examples within sports journalism that we could cite as well, so I don’t worry too much about that to be honest. For me, even if we get to a stage where there’s one gay player in each team, let’s make that really, really clear as long as those people are comfortable, so that any child that’s growing up gay and loves football knows it’s a place where they can be welcomed.

“In terms of the whole discussion around who’s going to be gay, my issue isn’t really with the individuals. My issue is with clubs and federations and managers, and those people who have the power to create the most positive environment possible who maybe don’t always do enough.

“I was in a meeting with the Premier League several years ago, I think enough time has passed that I can now talk about it. It was a meeting of different people who work either in diversity or as LGBTQ+ journalists to get views on what the Premier League could do. I remember asking in that meeting why every Premier League manager and coach, basically anyone who has a pastoral responsibility to players within football, doesn’t have to do LGBT+ awareness and education courses?

“You’re dealing with really young men who are often finding their way in life, right? I didn’t know my sexuality myself until I was 21. Other people will say that they were double that age when they finally came to terms with their sexuality. On the playing staff alone, people might be 16, or even a 15-year-old can train with the first team, through to 38, 39, 40. It’s a really big group of players and all those different age groups would respond differently both in coming to terms with their own sexuality, but also coming to terms with other people of that sexuality in the dressing room.

“I think we take for granted that all these different head coaches from all different backgrounds, all different countries, will have the tools to potentially handle that situation, and I don’t think that’s fair on those coaches.

“It’s not a case of me saying this person doesn’t know this or that. It’s not about correcting people or telling people they’re bigoted or racist or wrong or homophobic, it’s about giving them the requisite tools to create the safest, most empowering environment possible for those they are working with on a daily basis.

“You can make a pastoral case for it. You can also make an economic case for it, because a football club wants to succeed. They want their players to perform at the best of their ability because they’re being paid a shitload of money, and if you’re creating the best possible environment for them to flourish, you do absolutely everything else whether that’s ice baths, massages, flying when you could get a train and all of this different stuff to maximise their ability – so why not do this too?

“Some clubs have started to do it, I think Leeds United did the Stonewall education course with their whole first team and coaching staff earlier this year. I think they were the first club to do that in that format. Stonewall do lots of different stuff in different clubs, depending on what the club wants. The Premier League will say that we do some of this, but it should be across the board and it should be mandatory.

“It just makes so much sense to me as a starting point, because it’s not about saying we want to make people come out, it’s just saying we want to create an environment that is best for people to be themselves, and that can come under so many different guises. I said that five years ago to them, and it’s still not really happening yet. It’s something that should happen, and I don’t understand why it’s hasn’t.”

Responsible reporting

One thing that is notable at The Athletic is that Crafton is one of several LGBTQIA+ journalists on the staff.

Even editor-in-chief Alex Kay-Jelski is part of the community, and those perspectives help ensure queer stories are not sensationalised beyond recognition.

Adam Crafton speaking at Sports Media LGBT’s Taking Pride event last year.

They have also been proactive in trying to identify potential new recruits from underrepresented communities, but a recent encounter at one of those events gave Crafton a reminder of the importance of responsible coverage – whether that’s on the front page or the back.

“It’s been great for us in that we’ve managed to hire some people through these talent ID days, but we had one for LGBTQ+ people a couple of months ago now,” Crafton added.

“We had some trans or non-binary people who came, and it just struck me listening and speaking to them that there is an impression amongst those who identify as trans or non-binary that the industry might not be safe for them, that it might not be welcoming and inclusive.

“There are times at the moment where I struggle to make a convincing and compelling argument against that view. When I see some of the tone of the coverage around trans people in sport and around trans people beyond sport, I find it incredibly dehumanising.

“I do see the argument that there needs to be a sensible discussion around certain sports and making sure that they are safe for all people competing. For me that is logical and that is rational, however I do think there is a way to have that discussion that is respectful and humanising and recognises that trans and non-binary people have, in many cases, been through really, really unimaginably difficult experiences to get to the place they are in.

“I think sports journalists have a responsibility to be careful in our language and make sure we’re treating people the way we would want to be treated ourselves, or how our brother or sister would be treated. One day it might be one of them, and you don’t see it coming. Then you’ll wish you had treated the world slightly differently.”

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