Referee Ryan Atkin has spoken to Sky Sports about his life and experiences as a gay man working in football, making him the sport’s first publicly ‘out’ professional official in the UK.
The 32-year-old says his decision to share his story – described as “an important moment” for the sport by the Football Association’s Head of Senior Referee Development, Neale Barry – has been prompted by the recent strengthening of commitments made by the game’s governing bodies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion.
The FA, the Premier League and the EFL are among the organisations supporting Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, which is raising awareness across the sport of anti-LGBT language and behaviour that makes gay, bi and trans people feel unwelcome and unsafe.
Atkin believes being open about his own sexuality will help to demonstrate the campaign’s impact in football, saying to all involved in the game: “Be who you want to be, and accept someone for who they are.”
Having a referee encourage authenticity and acceptance in such a way sends “a hugely powerful message”, says Mike Riley, the managing director of Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, the organisation that oversees officiating in the Premier League, EFL and FA competitions.
In an in-depth interview with Sky Sports, Atkin explains: “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 is undertaking fourth official duties in the EFL and National Leagues this season and taking charge of matches himself in the North and South divisions of the National League, as well as levels below that.
He began refereeing in his hometown of Plymouth in 1999 and was promoted to Football League duties as an assistant ref in 2009, running the line in various fixtures – including Sky Bet Championship matches – before stepping down from those duties at the end of the 2015/16 campaign in order to follow the main Referee career path.
Atkin is encouraged by visible evidence of the changing culture in football and hopes more allies will feel confident in speaking out against homophobia.
“Undoubtedly, there has been good progress since I first started refereeing,” he adds. “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 also highlighted the impact of Sky Sports‘ recent ‘Support the Ref’ Week in improving understanding of the role of the referee. A series of reports, documentaries and interviews in March brought the task of officiating into sharper focus, and showed more of the personalities of the men – and women – in black.
The refereeing community draws strength from its diversity, says Atkin. “The toughest part of being a referee is knowing that a critical decision can have varied consequences for the game. Sometimes we don’t get it right, and it can be hard to see your mistakes.
“However, we all strive to be the best that we can be and to get the decisions right. We continually learn from each other and the professional bodies.”
For those who are already refereeing in football or who would like to officiate in the future, and who are LGBT, Atkin is optimistic about the benefits of them being open about their sexuality.
“People who are happy in their own skin at work will perform better as a result; the same is true of professional sport,” he says. “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.”
Neale Barry, Head of Senior Referee Development at The Football Association, said: “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.”
Mike Riley, Professional Game Match Officials Ltd Managing Director, said: “Ryan has demonstrated great skill, enthusiasm and commitment throughout his progress as a referee and, with the continued support of the FA and PGMOL coaches, has a great opportunity to realise his ambitions to referee in the EFL and Premier League.
“Those same qualities are evident in Ryan’s declaration today and we at PGMOL are proud to support him in emphasising that, in whatever walk of life, people perform better when they can be themselves, which is a hugely powerful message.”
Shaun Harvey, EFL chief executive, said: “The EFL remains committed to ensuring football – on and off the pitch – is a safe and welcoming environment for all those involved including fans, players, coaching staff and match officials.
“The courageous decision taken by Ryan to publicly come out is one that should be admired by everyone across all levels of the game. It demonstrates attitudes are changing and through the EFL Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan and working alongside the football family, our aim is to create an appropriate support network and ultimately an environment that is free from all forms of discrimination.
“Ryan has our full support and we will continue to provide assistance in any way we can during the next phase of his career. He is a determined and ambitious referee and we look forward to seeing how he progresses and develops throughout the course of the 2017/18 season.”
Robbie de Santos, Head of Campaigns at Stonewall, said: “We’re so pleased Ryan feels able to be open about his sexuality.
“Ryan’s story underlines just how important it is that there are allies who are willing to stand up for LGBT inclusion in all levels of sport.
“He is an inspiring role model and his decision to come out will no doubt give others the confidence to be themselves in football.
“Role models who step up and talk about their experiences in public are so crucial, especially for young LGBT people. It lets them know they’re not alone and that they too can succeed in any career they choose.”