The country’s major sporting codes have made a long overdue leap forward this week by signing a framework that will hopefully end homophobia in Australian sport. The move has been welcomed by the GLBTI community, human rights advocates and organisations such asBeyond Blue – but one has to ask why it took so long to get there.
The agreement is broad in its reach. It commits to ensuring a welcoming and safe environment not just for players, but also for coaches and fans, regardless of their sexuality, and to implement an anti-homophobia and inclusion framework by the end of August 2014 – in time for the Bingham Cup when thousands of gay rugby fans and fans will descend on Sydney.
The journey has been a long and difficult one, and the fact that we don’t currently have a single player in the AFL, NRL, Super Rugby or NRL confident enough to step forward as gay in 2014 is staggering. That fact alone – that not one out of thousands of elite players is willing to come out, nearly 20 years after Ian Roberts made his brave stand – suggests many are in the closet and that there are still serious problems beneath the surface of professional sport.
The case of the AFL is illustrative. The Collingwood president, Eddie McGuire, has even made the offer to provide ‘a platform’ for any AFL player who wanted to come out, and has intimated that several gay AFL players have shared their secret with him in private. But still a deafening silence surrounds any public disclosure of sexuality from within the AFL elite ranks.
Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising when the AFL was for so long unwilling to take a strong public stand on the issue, and dished out only minor penalties for AFL players’ homophobic outbursts, such as St Kilda’s Stephen Milne, who only received a $3,000 fine in 2012 after calling Collingwood defender Harry O’Brien a “fucking homo”. Until now perhaps, the AFL just wasn’t sending out the right messages.
For over a decade there have been gay and lesbian AFL fan clubs such as the Pink Magpies, and many straight AFL (as well as rugby, cricket and soccer) players who have supported anti-homophobia initiatives, such as Sydney Swans’ Mike Pyke and Ted Richards, and Giants co-captain Phil Davies. But without leadership from the heads of these sporting codes – silence and homophobia has been allowed to fester below the surface. It never should have been allowed to take this long.
The groundbreaking work done by Yarra Glen footy player Jason Ballwho launched a campaign in 2012 calling on the AFL to confront homophobia has no doubt been a key agent of change. Ball started his lonely petition on the change.org website for the AFL to play a ‘No to Homophobia’ ad during the grand final that received close to 30,000 signatures.
At the time he spoke about feeling the pressure to keep up his ‘blokeyness’ facade before coming out in 2012 – pretending to have girlfriends, and keeping silent when players used terms such as ‘fag’ or ‘homo’ to abuse opposition players. He said he didn’t know any other AFL players who were gay, so he “could only assume the worst, and it scared me”.
But for Ball it wasn’t necessary to even come out to his team-mates, because they worked it out and were supportive of him. He has since worked closely with AFL players, addressed them at induction camps, become an ambassador for Beyond Blue and speaks publicly whenever the opportunity has presented itself. Jason Ball has been the gutsy human face behind this push.
So now the AFL has committed to compulsory player education against homophobia, it will continue to display No to Homophobia ads on the scoreboard during the final season, and will develop a social inclusion policy. Other codes will be bound to follow an anti-homophobia framework that will gradually break down stigmas, break the silence – and ultimately could save lives.
The real world impact of this will be that young men and women considering a life in sport will no longer have to weigh that up against having to negotiate a hostile culture. A culture in which they had in the past needed to repress essential parts of who they were in order to achieve their personal best on the sports field.
Sport in general but AFL and the rugby codes in particular, have traditionally been closely tied with macho culture not just in Australia, but all over the world. By taking a stand against homophobia, Australian sporting codes are helping to redefine what is acceptable and what is not among a culture in which such boundaries have always been fuzzy.
These are all vitally welcome steps. They will mean that the shame and fear that has too often lead to tragic outcomes in the past will no longer have a place in Australia’s official sporting codes. Because like many social stigmas, once brought out into the open with human faces and real world consequences, most will recoil from bigotry.
It’s just a real shame that it has taken so long to take this great leap forward.