In less than 24 hours, the young footballer has become a household name; written on the front pages, discussed on morning TV, mentioned countless times on social media and praised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“I’ve known all my life that I was gay, and now I feel like I’m ready to come out and be myself,” the England footballer said in his statement.
Justin Fashanu was the first and, so far, only active male professional footballer in the UK to speak publicly about being a gay man. It was 32 years ago. Fashanu played for seven years but, aged 37, he committed suicide.
Daniels’ courage should not be taken lightly. Men’s football has struggled to keep pace with the rest of society and sadly in 2022 the game in the UK needed a trailblazer and a teenager who only made his first-team debut for Blackpool than two weeks ago.
“I’m ready to be myself,” Daniels said in his statement, before adding that it was a “step into the unknown.”
Remarkably, Daniels is not a seasoned professional, a player who has established himself in the game. He is a 17-year-old player who plays in the second tier of English football and has just signed his first professional contract.
He displayed a leadership and strength that belies his years, although he admitted he also made himself an easy target for zealots in society.
It was only last month that a football fan was banned from watching live football by a UK court for three years for shouting homophobic slurs during a Premier League game between Brighton and Hove Albion and Arsenal in October 2021.
“Scream whatever you want,” Daniels said, “it won’t make a difference.”
Daniels is the player who scored four goals in a youth game the day after telling his mum and sister. Secrets can, after all, be a burden, so the freedom to be himself off the pitch gave him the freedom to speak up on it.
Reaction to Daniels’ announcement has been positive. The world of football, its players, its experts and its governing bodies at least, has united.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, who exited after retirement, said “well done” to Daniels on Twitter and former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand tweeted: “Massive respect for this courageous decision.”
“Thank you for your leadership,” wrote Guardian journalist Barney Ronay, former England striker Gary Lineker told the BBC that others will follow Daniels’ path, while the Daily Mail wrote: “… it’s hard to imagine he’ll be alone for long.”
Living life as yourself is not a privilege for everyone, especially when living in the public eye, and so the reaction to Daniels’ announcement is important because not only will it help the player himself- same, but it can also encourage others to share their stories as well.
Football feels a bit more inclusive today thanks to Daniels because representation matters, indeed.
Problems, which cannot be solved by a man’s determination to be himself, of course remain in sport. Daniels alone cannot change that.
Men’s professional football is still behind women’s football – there were 40 openly gay, lesbian and bisexual players at the 2019 Women’s World Cup – and other sports.
Daniels, who said he knew he was gay from the age of five or six, received support from his club and Stonewall before making his statement and he will need it to continue because being a pioneer can be a heavy load to carry. He is a young man at the start of his career. A young man of whom, before Monday, few people would have heard of.
There will be more headlines, more interviews, but his sexuality shouldn’t be what defines him for us.