Josh Cavallo on his success after coming out as gay in an A-League first.
Twenty-one-year-old soccer player Josh Cavallo walked out of the Adelaide United change rooms on the afternoon of 27 October 2021 feeling overcome with love.
He’d just told his teammates he was gay, after hiding the fact from family and friends since admitting it to himself at the age of 16.
Before coming out, his life had involved dogged self-surveillance. Whenever loved ones asked about potential girlfriends, he’d have to remember what he had told the last person. He hated having to maintain the lie.
“There were times when I was running with the ball on the field and I was thinking about the conversation I was going to have after the game,” Cavallo tells Marketing magazine.
“That’s a huge distraction as a professional athlete.”
Buoyed by his team’s support that day in October, Cavallo went to his car and pulled out his phone. He opened Twitter and pressed ‘post’ on a video just under three minutes long, which was about to make sporting history.
“There’s something personal that I need to share with everyone,” he says in the video.
“I’m a footballer and I’m gay.”
There’s something a little anachronistic about a video of a young man coming out. These days, you’d hope LGBTIQA+ people in the public eye don’t feel they owe it to anyone to announce their sexuality quite so formally.
But Cavallo wanted his emotional video to show the turmoil many people in the closet still face. And the response to the video justified its release.
The viral video
Cavallo’s phone began buzzing so much, he had to turn it off. Within the first 30 minutes, he’d received over 700,000 messages. They came from fans, strangers, LGBTIQA+ icons Lil Nas X and Ellen DeGeneres, and World Cup champions Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann.
“When I turned it back on, obviously this warmth of love came through,” he says.
“I had to get two phones just to balance personal life with work.”
That video has now been viewed over 11 million times on Twitter and over two million on Instagram.
With it, Cavallo became the first in the Australian men’s A-League to come out as gay. Until as recently as May this year, he was the only openly gay man playing top-flight football in the world.
Cavallo was well aware of this significance going in. One of the first things he did when he realised he liked men was to look up if any famous footballers were gay.
“I wanted to find out if there were role models, or someone I could look up to that was paving the way in that industry,” he says. “A footballer that was successful, and that was gay, and was actively playing. But for me, unfortunately, there was no one at the time.”
There had been only one high-profile player to come out during their career before. In 1990, English footballer Justin Fashanu shocked the football world when he told a newspaper he was gay. The homophobia he faced, among other factors, has been tied to his death by suicide eight years later.
Changing the game
Three decades after Fashanu, Cavallo ended the silence in the men’s game. In the meantime, the female top players have been kicking goals for inclusivity with less of a stir.
Outsports counted 38 out LGBTQIA+ players at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
“I was honestly so happy when I saw the women’s game,” says Cavallo.
“To see how relaxed the girls are and how cool that is. I thought, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that in [men’s] football one day’. And then I thought to myself, ‘Wish? I can make that happen. I have the opportunity to make this happen in football now’.”
In the 10 months since sharing his video, Cavallo’s message of pride has directly effected change in soccer.
Adelaide United hosted the A-League’s first ever pride game in February, a sellout match with players sporting rainbow jerseys. His old junior team, Brighton Soccer Club, also put a Proud2Play logo on its jersey in honour of Cavallo’s coming out.
Over in England, Jake Daniels, a 17-year-old Blackpool FC player in the Championship league (the second tier of the English system), cited Cavallo’s courage as inspiration for his coming out last May.
“Thousands” of other closeted sports players have reached to Cavallo for advice.
“Some are ready to come out tomorrow, some aren’t ready to come out until 10 years’ time,” says Cavallo. “But to be that ear for them and to listen to them and guide them, to show them how good life is for me and how good [the changes have been], is really nice, too.”
Fielding hate online
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a homophobic backlash to Cavallo’s success. Not three months after his video went viral, crowd members yelled abuse at him during a game. The hate also continued on social media.
“For me, when I see a little bit of hate online or get a little bit of hate in person – you can bring all the hate in the world you want to me, but to know that I’m helping save lives and change lives for the better for a little kid, I’ll do that every day,” he says.
While Cavallo says the love he gets outweighs the hate, the same may not go for other LGBTQIA+ people online. After that game, he took to his social media to call on Instagram for better protections.
“To Instagram I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that I’ve received… It’s a sad reality that your platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”
Following this, Cavallo says he had discussions with social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, about changing their settings to block and monitor trigger words in comments.
Twitter confirmed its safety mode and conversation tools were already in place before Cavallo came out. But the company is in ‘constant communication’ with his team to ensure it addresses any concerns or issues.
The changing commercial landscape for rainbow community athletes
Keeping up with the zeitgeist, more brands than ever are coming out in support of the player.
Cavallo has worked with Gymshark, Ralph Lauren and car company Cupra. Details of other currently confidential endorsement deals will be released soon, he says.
“It’s important for these brands to see that there is someone in the LGBTQ+ space that can represent them,” says Cavallo.
Across the sporting professions, living openly as an gay athlete used to be a sponsorship sinker.
A Seattle Times article from 1994 speculated that tennis legend Martina Navratilova and other top athletes missed out on major sponsorships for being open about their sexuality. The same article noted how Olympic gold medallist diver Greg Louganis struggled to land endorsement deals outside of swimwear and towel manufacturers because of homophobia and discrimination based on his HIV status.
The tide seems to be turning, for cisgender players at least. (Transgender and intersex athletes are still fighting to participate in sport, let alone obtain commercial support.)
Before Cavallo came out, he had zero sponsorships. He couldn’t afford a Ralph Lauren shirt. Now, brands are taking notice of his broad appeal beyond sport.
“People don’t have to get football to get my story,” says Cavallo.
Ordinary folks who don’t follow the A-League have approached him on the street – or even come to the pride game.
“A lot of people that came to that game weren’t necessarily football fans, but they felt like it was a safe place that they could come [to] and be themselves,” he says.
Brands know authenticity and inclusivity sells, particularly among Cavallo’s generation.
“Yes, it’s great having these companies come to me and want to work with me, but they have to align with my brand and my messaging behind it,” Cavallo says.
As with many positive firsts, Cavallo’s coming out story has attracted a big following and, with it, lucrative sponsorships. If more male players come out, the novelty may soon wear off and the endorsement deals could become diffused.
It’s impossible to predict what’s next. And for professionals at the top of their game, it’s not all about the sponsors.
“The main focus for me isn’t just about branding and endorsement deals. It’s about the messaging behind it,” says Cavallo.
“I want to make that next person’s life better and easier than what I had to go through.”