Former Norwich City star Justin Fashanu’s trouble with the tabloids
Justin Fashanu was staying at a hotel in Toronto in early October 1990 when he received a call that left the 6ft 2in striker quaking in his boots.
A reporter with a British Sunday newspaper called to inform him that the paper was planning to run a front-page exposé. They knew he was gay and insisted they had the proof, though they refused to share the precise details of the supposed proof with Fashanu. Did he have any comments?
Fashanu's heart hit the floor. All of a sudden, the opportunity to come out publicly in his own time had been snatched away. For years, Fashanu had contemplated revealing his secret and at one point had even approached Malcolm Doney. That obviously hadn't worked out and now it looked as if the whole thing was out of his hands. It was a cruel turn of events. Soon, the world would know he was gay and he had no control over it.
In a panic, Fashanu called the British sports agent Eric Hall for help. Nicknamed 'Monster', Hall was a brash and bullish agent who also worked in show business. He had a long list of clients and contacts in almost every field, particularly the media. Fashanu figured that if anyone knew what to do in his predicament then Hall would. He was right.
After reprimanding the footballer for calling him in the early hours of the morning, Hall backed off when he heard how concerned the footballer sounded.
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Fashanu explained his dilemma and how the article could seriously affect his life. It was not only damaging but potentially embarrassing. Hall agreed. The agent told the footballer to remain calm while he made some calls.
For someone who had previously been quite nonchalant about his open secret (some might say careless), Justin was beginning to realise the serious implications it could have for his career.
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For many years now he'd felt like he'd been standing on a narrow precipice. While he'd often been tempted to take the plunge into the unknown below by revealing his secret, he'd never actually done it, fearful of what might happen to him. Now he was being pushed and who knew how far he was going to fall?
Hall contacted Kelvin MacKenzie the hard-nosed editor of The Sun and a personal friend. After explaining the situation, MacKenzie made a suggestion. Why not run a front-page expose in The Sun instead? It would be more beneficial to Fashanu because the footballer would have control over what got published, plus MacKenzie would pay him. It was more than Fashanu would get at the rival newspaper.
Hall relayed the offer to Fashanu who concurred. He didn't really have a choice. The story was going to get published regardless, so he might as well make some money out of it. The fee agreed was £70,000 in return for an exclusive interview with the star about his secret life as a gay footballer. He was the first professional footballer in the whole world who was openly admitting he was gay. It was a massive story.
MacKenzie had agreed to let Fashanu dictate what he wanted in the upcoming articles, but the editor was not a top dog in the British tabloid game for nothing. He wanted a few revelations in return. Fashanu was being paid a hefty bounty for the exclusive and MacKenzie was not going to settle for anything less than sensational. Fashanu would not disappoint.
With the story in place for the next morning's edition Hall waved Fashanu goodbye, wished him luck and headed to The Sun office.
After Hall's departure, Fashanu was left alone to face the daunting task of calling his brother and informing him about the next day's story. The younger Fashanu was still playing for Wimbledon and at the prime of his career. Justin didn't want him finding out he was gay directly from the newspaper but he knew it would be a difficult conversation. Not only was John about to find out that his brother was gay, but also that this fact would soon be common knowledge across the planet.
As the first openly gay professional footballer anywhere, Justin was astute enough to realise the story would generate global headlines. While Justin knew that John would be unhappy he had no idea just how badly his younger brother would actually react. When he heard the news, John was shocked and angry. He begged his brother not to release the story and told him he would match whatever money The Sun was paying him. Justin told him it was too late for that leaving John furious. What the elder brother didn't say is that he had no choice in the matter as the story was being published regardless.
While we don't know exactly why Justin didn't tell John the whole truth it seems likely that he wanted his younger brother to think that he had come out publicly on his own volition. Maybe it was because he wanted to show that he was in control of the situation. John told Justin he was making a big mistake and could not understand why his brother had chosen The Sun to reveal his story. Of all the tabloids in England, he felt it was one of the worst. Not only was it notoriously homophobic it was also considered racist. He believed that as a gay black man his brother could not have chosen a worse newspaper to trumpet his news.
After their conversation ended, John called Eric Hall and begged him to help quiet the story. He told the sports agent that Wimbledon was due to play Tottenham the following week in a local derby, and once news got out that Justin was gay John feared getting hammered by fans. No matter that his brother was about to put himself in the firing line. Shocked at John's reaction, Hall said if anyone abused him then they could go to hell. Like Justin, Hall informed him that there was nothing anyone could do to prevent the story from coming out. It had already been written and would be hitting newsstands the next morning. Hall said the best thing John could do was brace himself.
Later that day when a reporter from The Sun called John and asked him for a quote he reportedly said: 'Yeah, I have got something to say. When you write those billboards tomorrow that say: 'Fashanu is Gay' make sure that you write: 'Justin Fashanu is Gay.'
One of the biggest stories in football finally broke on Monday, October 22 1990, under a massive front page headline: '£1m SOCCER STAR: I AM GAY'. Just under the headline were the words: 'Justin Fashanu confesses'.