JOE talks to Casey Stoney about England Women's success and footballers coming out
The news that two Premier League players are set to come out received a broadly positive reaction from the football community.
There's a sense that we've made progress when it comes to changing attitudes, but there's still a long way to go.
The situation is different in the women's game, however, with a number of players speaking openly about their sexuality and being greeted with the sort of reception many will have hoped for but not been able to guarantee.
One such footballer is Casey Stoney, former captain of the England women's team and a member of the squad that finished third at the 2015 World Cup, and one of a number of elite female players to come out during their top-flight careers.
The Arsenal defender spoke to JOE about the impact that could be made by a similar breakthrough in men's football, as well as lifting the lid on the changes in mentality that helped her and her England team-mates break new ground in Canada over the summer.
"I think this will help if the two players speak out. It’s a brave decision and I hope the reaction is positive, as it won’t change who they are as people," Stoney says.
"The only way to get rid of the stigma is people speaking out and showing that their sexuality doesn’t affect what they do day-to-day in their job."
She acknowledges that the likely reaction in the men's game will be different, describing the terrace atmosphere at Premier League grounds as especially unforgiving. But Stoney doesn't want to understate how important it can be for fans as well as for the players in question.
"They won’t just be doing this for themselves – it’s for other people who can be helped by this," she adds.
"We need to think about the fact that young people look up to footballers and this can make people feel they’re not alone – raising awareness and education has to be a good thing."
There has clearly been support for this mindset on social media, which perhaps might not have been the case with previous generations of football fans.
It's clear from speaking to Stoney, who has one-year-old twins with partner Megan Harris, that helping the younger generation is something she is passionate about.
She acknowledges the increased pressures faced by young people, particularly as a consequence of the growth of social media, and is keen to do her bit off the pitch.
Stoney joined Thierry Henry to mentor 21 secondary school children as part of the Sky Academy Confidence Month, helping youngsters build confidence by taking them out of their comfort zone.
"There’s more pressure than ever before on young people to do more but they need confidence to do things like being the first to speak up, or going out and joining sports teams," Stoney reveals.
"When I was growing up I didn’t have the benefit of social media. This can be fantastic but also can increase pressure on how you’re supposed to look and behave at a young age. For me the pressure I had was different – it was being told ‘you can’t play football’. You have to grow up so quickly now, we don’t let kids be kids enough of the time."
Henry has himself spoken frankly about footballers coming out, while Stoney believes the former France striker helped teach youngsters the difference between confidence and arrogance, and how there's nothing wrong with the former.
This translates to the broader mental side of the game, something which Stoney believes made a huge difference to England's women's team over the summer.
The Lionesses came desperately close to their first ever World Cup final, falling at the semi-final stage against Japan in heartbreaking fashion thanks to a freak own goal in stoppage-time.
But there was little to choose between the final four, and the former skipper credits coach Mark Sampson for instilling a sense of self-belief throughout the squad.
"The manager made a difference, especially the language he used," she explains.
"We told ourselves we’re here to make sure we get to the final, not just taking each game as it comes.
"We had never won a knockout game before, and [the last-16 win over Norway] broke barriers and helped us get that monkey off our back. It allowed us to focus on what we were good at, and we never lacked confidence, even against Germany [in the third-place play-off]."
A coaching career almost certainly awaits Stoney after retirement, though she has promised herself a long holiday first.
She has picked up a lot from her playing days, both on the technical and mental sides of football, and one would expect her to build on the education she has received from a number of top coaches.
But she's well aware of the amount of progress that the women's game has already made since she began her career a decade and a half ago.
"We’re a world away from where we want to be, but we’ve come a long way," Stoney reveals.
"The biggest thing, though, is changing perceptions, and it’s great that we did that with the World Cup. If it gets one teacher to start an after school club or one dad to take his daughter to play football at the weekend then we’ve achieved something.
"I want my daughter to feel she has the same opportunities as my son to play football – she might not be able to earn the same amount, but we’re making progress."
Sky Sports Living for Sport, part of Sky Academy, is a free scheme made up of multi-week and one-day sports projects with schools throughout the UK and Ireland. Founded on the belief that sport has the power to transform young people’s lives, the initiative aims to help them build practical skills and self-confidence. Go to sky.com/academy