Stonewall FC and EA SPORTS FIFA have come together again this season to support the Rainbow Laces campaign. This year, the initiative focuses on encouraging both LGBTQ+ community members and allies to ‘Lace Up and Speak Up’. Until Friday, FIFA 22 players will have the chance to unlock Stonewall FC’s iconic ‘Unity’ kit in-game. VERSUS spoke with LGBTQ+ ally and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ captain Conor Coady, about the importance of lacing up and speaking out, plus his role as an advocate for change in football.
The Wolves and England defender has been balling out professionally for the best part of a decade. From seeing his side gain promotion to the Premier League to being named in UEFA’s Squad of the Season, Coady is a certified ‘Grade A’ product of English football. But more than that, he's someone that isn’t afraid to stand up for those who don’t always have a voice.
Named Football Ally at the LGBTQ Awards earlier this year, Coady has always 'laced up and spoken out' on behalf of the queer community in football, a game that still has some way to go before being recognised as truly inclusive.
Speaking with Coady, his passion for football and making it a sport welcoming of everyone is inspiring. He is someone that wants to leave a lasting impression on a game that’s given him so much. The lad from Liverpool is as clean-hearted as they come. His intentions and actions aren’t superficial, and instead come from a place of genuine care. As someone who’s struggled to accept themselves at times for their own sexuality, people like Coady make me feel more at ease with who I am and the game I love. Speaking with him about EA SPORTS FIFA and Stonewall FC’s link-up made me realise players like Coady need protecting at all costs. Check out what he had to say about the initiative, his role in football and what we can all do to make it everyone’s game.
At VERSUS, we genuinely believe that football has the power to change the world for the better. As a professional footballer, is that something you also believe in?
Conor Coady: It’s huge! I speak about it all the time and I’ll be honest with you, I think that football is the greatest sport in the world. And what we can do as footballers – or people within football – is massive. That’s something that more and more people are starting to realise now.
We are so privileged to play this sport as a job every single day of our lives, and I think most footballers would tell you the same thing: if they could make the smallest difference in the world they would, and to be able to do that playing the game they love, it’s an absolute privilege.
Why do you think it is so important for LGBTQ+ community members and allies to ‘Lace Up and Speak Out’?
We all want the world to be a better place, and we all want football to be a better place too. I certainly do anyway! So, I don’t really see why it’s something that you wouldn’t want to do if I’m being perfectly honest.
For myself, it’s all about making people feel comfortable and happy in their own skin so they can really enjoy football. And I don’t understand why there’d be people in the world who wouldn’t want to help people feel that way. Speaking up is a big part of making sure that happens. I speak a lot about the next generation and how it’s important to make the world a better place for them – I certainly want that for my three boys! – and I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way. So for me, that’s one of the main reasons why I choose to ‘Lace Up and Speak Out’.
What would you say to people who think footballers should just ‘stick’ to football?
People have their own opinions about footballers, and they’re entitled to them, but footballers are good people – a lot of them are anyway! And they genuinely want to make a difference. I’ve been in the sport for a long time now, so I know that is the case for a lot of people I’ve worked with over the years.
I think it’s quite lazy of people to say something like that to be honest. Footballers are people who are actually trying to do good and make a difference in people’s lives like I said. We really do understand just how big football can be for some people. For some, it’s everything. And like I said, we’re the privileged ones who get to play it every week in front of thousands of people, so if we can make a difference, then we should try to. At least then – even if we fail – we’ve done our best to try and do something to make the world a better place. It’s important that people recognise that, and that we’re just trying to make football better for everyone regardless of their background or circumstance.
“It’s important that we keep talking because if we continue to do that, football can become a lot more accepting and inclusive.”
You’ve been a professional footballer for the best part of a decade now. Does it ‘feel’ as if dressing rooms have changed over the years? I like to think someone would be ‘pulled up’ for using offensive language as ‘banter’ for example nowadays.
I can only speak on behalf of myself and our dressing room at Wolves, and it’s always been incredible. But what I will say is, we are a lot further down the line with football in terms of having conversations about these topics than we were ten years ago when I first started playing.
We are actually having conversations now we wouldn’t even think about having back then! Whether they’re taking place in the changing rooms or over a coffee at breakfast, it’s important that we keep talking because if we continue to do that, football can become a lot more accepting and inclusive.
I remember during the summer, you told the story of how your son’s football team took the knee before kick-off. Seeing that – especially as a Dad – it must have ‘hit home’ the impact players like yourself can have on the next generation?
It really triggered something for me if I’m being honest with you in terms of the level of responsibility I have, and the impact my actions can have on the world.
Making football better for people coming through is really important to me. I am a grown man now – I’m 28 years-old – I can ‘take things’ and I’ve become quite hardened by some experiences, but I don’t want people younger than me to have to feel or ‘be’ like that. I don’t want that for my children who are playing football now. So when my wife sent me that picture it was quite a powerful moment.
One of my best friends is Tyrone Mings and he’s a massive advocate for inclusivity in football too, and I had a conversation with him about this picture and we had a big chat about it together in my apartment in Wolves. It really hit home for him too. Seeing something that is really, quite a simple act of solidarity, that can make a six-year-old and four-year-old – even if they don’t really understand it yet because they’re only babies – act in a certain way. It was amazing.
My eldest asked me why I took the knee, and we spoke about it on the couch. Now, he might not remember that conversation, but he will ask me again and I need to make sure I’m honest with him and tell him exactly why we do things like that as footballers and people. Having these conversations, and being willing to have them regularly, is so important to making football a better environment.
“Footballers have the power to use their platforms and come together to ensure people like yourself feel seen and heard.”
Football isn’t always the most inclusive space. I very rarely feel comfortable holding my partner’s hand at a match. What do you think can be done to make people like me feel safe and ‘proud’ when watching the game I love?
I am a bit gutted that people come to the game and feel like that. I spoke a little bit today about what if someone in our changing room felt like that, and I’d hate it because we want football to be a happy place. We want it to be the best place in the world where people can come and watch the game with whoever they want to. Whether it’s your girlfriend or boyfriend, whoever it may be! We just want people to love the game freely.
In regards to what can be done, it’s a really hard one isn’t it? I think more than anything, footballers have the power to use their platforms and come together to ensure people like yourself feel seen and heard. I spoke earlier about our privilege, and a big part of that is the huge platforms we have to speak up on behalf of others. It is about having these conversations regularly too.
We’ve just had the Rainbow Laces campaign, can we perhaps keep using that symbol because it’s become one that everyone recognises and respects. When people see players wearing laces or the armband, they know what it means and talk about its significance. What I definitely know is, we all want to make that ‘next step’ in terms of making football a more welcoming place for people like yourself and your partner.
Since its release 17-years ago, FIFA has sold roughly 325+million ‘copies’. That is a ludicrous amount of people potentially pretending they’re Conor Coady! FIFA players can now unlock Stonewall FC’s ‘Unity’ kit. How significant a moment do you think that is?
It links a little bit to your previous question, these ‘little’ ideas or actions, all come together to create a bigger impact.
Millions of people will see that kit and some might start to ask questions. Whether it’s about Stonewall FC or themselves, it acts as a conversation starter. It’s an educational tool. It’s speaking to people about what’s important in life, and how they can be comfortable in their own skin. As I mentioned before, I’d hate to be in my dressing room at Wolves and for someone to be hiding who they are, sitting there deeply unhappy because they can’t be themselves. I’d hate it. This kit might allow people to be a little more open with who they are. That’s so important.
“Football is for everyone, someone being gay shouldn’t be something that makes people feel uncomfortable.”
Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo recently came out as gay. The first male professional footballer to do so while playing. If you could say one thing to Josh, what would it be?
Well done mate! Enjoy!
Listen, I am asked a lot: when do you think the first Premier League player will ‘come out’? And the question does my head-in sometimes because, the world should be a place where, if someone wants to ‘come out’ then they should be able to without any issue. Football is for everyone, someone being gay shouldn’t be something that makes people feel uncomfortable.
When someone does eventually take that step, football will still be football. It isn’t going to change anything in that sense. We just need to make sure we can get to a point where it isn’t considered news but just a part of the game.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for an ‘active’ male player – like Cavallo – to take that step?
Is it something that we mentioned before about people not feeling comfortable in our game? Which is horrible to think. Players within the game, and clubs as a whole, are trying to make sure the game is more diverse and reflects the people that watch it. Today I’ve spoken with others a lot about LGBTQ+ groups within football and how much they’re doing to make sure more people like Josh feel comfortable to be themselves. There’s still a long way to go, but things are starting to happen now more than ever to make football a better place for everyone.
What does Conor Coady want his footballing legacy to be?
Someone who has been there to help people. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted to be my whole life to be honest.
Someone who was there to offer a shoulder for people to cry on, whether that’s on or off the pitch. That’s all I want people to see from me. To know I’ll be there for them to speak to no matter what. I say that all the time to my teammates in the dressing room, and I say it all the time to people outside of football. Helping people, and wanting to help people, is a massive part of my life. And like I’ve said to yourself today, just trying to help people in order to make football better for the next generation coming through the ranks no matter whether they’re gay or straight. As long as I leave football in a better place from when I started, that’s all I can hope for.
You can purchase an official Stonewall FC ‘Unity’ shirt directly from the club’s store with 10% of total profits generated from sales donated to Mermaids charity. Any wider profits will be reinvested into the club.