The decision of the former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger to come out as gay is a good moment for anyone involved with football, whether professionally or as a spectator, to take a closer look at the absence of openly gay players and the apparent problem with attitudes towards sexuality within the game.

Hitzlsperger, who was capped 52 times by Germany, revealed his sexuality in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit yesterday, becoming one of the most high profile players to come out. Of players to have played professionally in England, he is only the third to publicly reveal that he is gay. Last year Robbie Rogers, a USA international playing for Leeds United came out as gay, and the only other professional to come out in the English game was Justin Fashanu, whose troubled life ended in suicide in 1998.

It's fairly clear simply from the low number of openly gay players that the sport has a problem when it comes to sexuality. Fashanu's tragic experience as the first openly gay player in the 1990s would have hardly encouraged other gay players to publicly discuss their sexuality, while the taboo nature of homosexuality in football was only underlined by the fact that Rogers felt inclined to simultaneously retire from the game when he revealed that he is gay (he has since returned to playing with the US Major League side LA Galaxy). Meanwhile Hitzlsperger says he wouldn't be able to "imagine playing and doing this at the same time" and has only made his announcement following his retirement through injury last year.

So what are the roots of the problem? Part of the issue seems to lie in the dressing room. In discussing why he did not come out while he was an active player, Hitzlsperger pointed to the attitudes that tend to prevail among his fellow professionals. "Just picture 20 men sat around a table together drinking," he told Die Zeit. "You've just got to let the majority be, just as long as the jokes are halfway funny and the talk about homosexuality doesn't get too insulting." Rogers has made a similar point, saying that dressing room "banter" made him him fearful of how his team mates might react. "They often don't mean what they say," he told the Guardian in an interview last year. "It's that pack mentality – they're trying to get a laugh, they're trying to be the top guy. But it's brutal. It's like high school again – on steroids."

Beyond the dressing room, it's clear that a major concern for any footballer considering coming out would be the reaction of the fans. Hitzlsperger told Radio 4's Today programme that there is a "long way to go" before there is an openly gay player in a top league "because we fear a reaction and we don't know what will happen". Such a reaction may come from fellow players, but it would also come from the stands, something that concerned Rogers as he weighed up whether he could come out and continue playing in England. "Maybe a lot of fans aren't homophobic," he said in his Guardian interview. "But in a stadium sometimes they want to destroy you." Certainly the evidence from the stands offers little encouragement for any player considering coming out as gay – non-gay players, including the former England internationals Graeme Le Saux and Sol Campbell, have endured homophobic abuse from fans, and a 2009 survey by the gay rights group Stonewall found that 70 per cent of supporters in England had heard anti-gay abuse in the stands.

Does all this mean that football is uniquely unchanging with regards to attitudes towards gay players? While it's certainly remarkable and statistically improbable that there have been so few openly gay players, it's worth remembering that other sports have hardly fared better in terms of players feeling comfortable with revealing their sexuality. Whenever a sportsperson has been open about their sexuality, whether it has been rugby player Gareth Thomas, cricketer Steven Davies, boxer Nicola Adams or diver Tom Daley, the announcement has proven newsworthy, precisely because it is such a rare occurrence. As someone who has attended football matches for most of my life, I can't help feeling that there's a risk of demonising the average football fan by placing too much emphasis on the way crowds would react to an openly gay footballer – of course football fans are discouraging players from coming out, they're far too uncivilised to take a liberal attitude. It's an argument that might stand up better if other, more "civilised" sports were beacons for sexual diversity, but they're not. Football may still be stuck in the "dark ages" in terms of openly gay players, but other sports haven't proven to be much different.

That's not to say that I'm so naive as to think a gay player wouldn't receive abuse from the stands. I've attended enough matches and overheard enough abusive language to know that such a player would receive some horrific abuse. But I also think that the majority of football fans are decent people who would have no inclination to tolerate such abuse. Racism may still persist among isolated sections of football supporters in Britain, but since the low points of the 1980s it has largely been eradicated from stadiums through a combination of zero tolerance by the authorities and zero tolerance by most fans, reflecting the shift in wider social attitudes in the same period. Because football is the sport with the broadest base of support in this country, with modern crowds representing a cross section of society, the game has the potential to play a hugely important role in the advance of gay rights and the retreat of homophobia in Britain. When we eventually see that an openly gay footballer can play at the highest level without suffering mass abuse, it will reflect the change in attitudes that has occurred in society over the last 20 years or so, in the same way that the decline of racism on the terraces reflected advances in racial equality.

Admittedly we are some way from seeing this at present. It is probably going to require, as a first step, one relatively high-profile player coming out and choosing to play on at the highest level. Whoever that player is will have to be extremely courageous. They will have to overcome the fears expressed by Hitzlsperger and Rogers regarding both fellow players and fans. They will almost certainly receive abuse from the stands, some of which will be horrendous. A zero tolerance approach will be required from the authorities (there are signs of such a policy already being implemented), but I think that through this, and the pioneering player's willingness to push on through the initial abuse, we would soon see that the majority of football fans have no desire to participate in homophobia, and have little interest in the sexuality of the players on the pitch.