David Pocock is a courageous man. Twice during the final minutes of the Waratahs’ match against the Brumbies in Sydney on Sunday the flanker complained that the Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter had called two Brumbies players “faggot” – and twice the referee claimed he had not heard the insult.
“You heard that sir … you can’t say that, there could be gay players out there,” Pocock interjected in the 72nd minute of play. “That’s fine, but after that, their captain said, ‘That’s rugby’. That’s not right.”
Indeed it’s not right, and late last night following a SANZAR investigation Potgieter admitted to his comments, apologised and expressed remorse. “I’m very sorry for any offence caused by what I said on the field during a heated encounter,” the South African said. “It was an offhand remark made without thought for the hurt it could cause to those around me.” Potgieter was fined $20,000 – with $10,000 suspended – by the Australian Rugby Union for using the homophobic slurs.
Pocock should be commended for having the guts to take a stand on this issue and hold his own code to account over its stated support of eradicating homophobia. Pocock has been a vocal supporter of gay marriage and he and his partner Emma have pledged not to be legally married themselves until the law is changed to include all couples. He has been an activist on other fronts as well. In November last year he chained himself to a digger for 10 hours as part of a blockade against Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine. For that he received a formal warning from the ARU. Clearly Pocock is an activist for what he believes in, but his actions on Sunday prove that he is interested in more than just symbolism and feel good PR.
It’s one thing for the ARU to support events such as the Bingham Cup, the so-called Gay Rugby World Cup, to sign onto clauses such as anti-homophobia and inclusion framework, and to encourage players to march in the Mardi Gras parade. But it’s quite another to take concrete action to stamp out homophobia when it rears its ugly head mid-match. At the weekend Pocock stepped up when match official Craig Joubert failed to act.
Sadly, none is this is overly surprising on one level. By any estimates there must be plenty of highly conflicted and deeply repressed Australian sports people placing their career above their own open sexual freedom. Comment columns of mainstream news sites reveal prevailing attitudes that such language is just part of the game. Here’s a typical reader response from a Fox Sports forum on Monday night: “harden up mate, did the name calling hurt your feelings so bad that it made the brumbies lose the game? Coaches take note. if u want to beat the brumbies call them names and theyll [sic] be too busy crying about it and forget about playing rugby.”
But this outcome has shown that “hardening up” has nothing to do with it. Such comments flung about like dirt on sports field are surely a contributing factor as to why there is not a single player in Super Rugby, the NRL, AFL or A-League brave enough to step forward as gay in 2015. These are the kind of casual insults that cut deep and inflict real damage.
At a press conference on Monday, Waratahs player Israel Folau denied homophobia exists at the club – indeed in the game of rugby union as a whole – adding that he’s “a religious guy”. It’s unclear why he felt it necessary to refer to his religion at that point – but just to be clear, religious beliefs should not be used as a defence against bigotry in Australia in 2015.
Pocock has since indicated he doesn’t want this to become a “witch hunt”. “We want to be inclusive for people watching and people playing,” he said.
A number of leading sports and social commentators including Peter FitzSimons and Tim Wilson immediately took to Twitter to congratulate Pocock on taking a principled stand. Potgieter at least had the decency to own up to his comments and make a considered and convincing response. Full credit to him for that.
What Pocock has propagated here is something deeper – cultural change. That will only happen when people are willing to stand up mid-match and call out inappropriate behaviour as and when it happens. Such ideological warriors are essential on the sports field because they can provide a bridge between the changing political demographic that no longer buys into misogynistic, homophobic or racist attributes formally associated with a different era of macho culture. Just because we play sport doesn’t mean we’re obnoxious bigots.
In 2000 Cathy Freeman held the flag for Indigenous people at the Sydney Olympics; could Pocock and others hold it just as high against bigotry and for environmental action? In this political climate the more people like Freeman and Pocock willing to step and put themselves on the line for their beliefs the better. That’s what cultural change looks like.