A venue for the much-anticipated fight between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn – which is being billed as the biggest bout in Australian boxing history – is yet to be confirmed, but if it goes ahead at Suncorp Stadium as expected, or any other location in Australia, it runs a very real risk of sending the wrong message to young sports fans and setting back significant efforts to stamp out homophobia in the country’s sporting landscape.
The fight pits local favourite Horn, 28, who has won 17 professional fights after last month knocking out South African veteran Ali Funeka, against the 38-year-old Pacquiao, a true great of the sport who captured the WBO welterweight title for the third time in a long boxing career after defeating Jessie Vargas in Las Vegas in November.
But Pacquiao comes with baggage. Plenty of it. In February 2016, Pacquiao was on the verge of victory as a conservative Christian senator in the Filipino Senate and was being touted by some as a future presidential candidate in 2022 when he caused outrage with his comments that people in same-sex relationships were “worse than animals”. He also demonstrated to the world an astounding ignorance when asking, “Do you see animals mating with the same sex?”
Putting aside the fact that his comments are demonstrably and scientifically wrong, they inflicted hurt and ridicule to the LGBTI community but increased support for him among a conservative electorate in the Philippines.
Pacquiao later attempted to backtrack on the comments saying that he “was just stating the truth, what the Bible says”. He apologised on social media and claimed he was not “condemning LGBT people”, but stood by his anti-gay marriage position.
But clearly the damage was already done and his stance was met with global condemnation. Sportswear manufacturers Nike abruptly ended its commercial relationship with him and described the comments as “abhorrent”.
Pacquiao later appeared to underline his earlier position by putting a picture on his Instagram account with a Bible quote that read: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
The comments are likely to propel his political career in a country where conservative values are in the ascendency and acceptance of same-sex marriage lags far behind many other parts of the world.
But political posturing locally can have knock-on effects on a global scale – especially when, like with Pacquiao, we’re talking about a renowned sports star and role model to many young fans.
In recent years, many Australian sports codes have made serious efforts to stamp out homophobia; look no further than the AFL’s Pride game that took place last August or the Rainbow round for all sports coming up in April this year.
Brave individuals such as Ian Roberts and Jason Ball have blazed a trail that should make it easier for high profile LGBTI sportspeople in Australia to be open about their sexuality. They have done so with the support and encouragement of straight Australian athletes such as David Pocock and Tyson Goldsack who have proactively voiced their personal commitment to creating a non-discriminatory sports field.
Such efforts are to be applauded for bringing about genuine and much needed culture change.
We’ve already come a long way in Australia towards opening up the beauty and excitement of sport to all – players and spectators alike – regardless of their sexual preference and without imposing the ugly spectacle of prejudice and bigotry on the sports field anew.
But the sight of spectators cheering on a boxer who holds such views would create a tension that will only set back the efforts of meaningfully tackling homophobia in sport – right at a moment when long-overdue progress is finally being made.
If we are serious about stamping out homophobia in Australian sport once and for all, we should be thinking very carefully about rolling out the welcome mat for Pacquiao at an Australian sporting arena.