The AFL is stuck in the past as homophobia continues to permeate through the AFL’s culture and it shall continue to do so unless radical changes are made from the grassroots level all the way up to the top flight.
The AFL dipped its toes into the homophobic water last year with its ‘say no to homophobia’ ads during the finals series, but the culture cannot change unless Andrew Demetriou dives in and completely rallies behind the gay and lesbian community like he has in recent years for women’s rights and Indigenous people.
There are currently no openly gay AFL players in the entire league; this is symbolic of where the game stands at the moment as players are fearful of being open with their sexuality. Richmond’s Daniel Jackson and Carlton’s Brock McLean are the only two players to come out and publicly attempt to stamp out homophobia, yet this is not enough. More players must rally behind the issue before gay players are able to come out to not only their team mates, but to the public and announce their sexuality.
Kevin O’Neil, founder of the Facebook page Wipeout Homophobia stated “I doubt that it is important for professional athletes to tell their teammates about their sexual orientation.” This may not be the case for AFL players, as trust and being open with each other is crucial in the AFL. It’s really a case of the more understanding, the better for the community.
Whilst it is completely up to gay AFL players to decide whether they’d feel more comfortable concealing their sexuality or being open, it is imperative that multiple gay AFL players come out to the public in order for the game to grow. Right now, there are plenty of gay and lesbian youths who may feel ashamed of their sexuality and they don’t have role models in the AFL who can allow them to feel comfortable with who they are.
However, the biggest problem for the AFL is finding at least one player to come out to the public. Whilst the media may be extremely supportive, there is sure to be backlash from the public and a focus on the player or players who come out of the closet.
In 1990, English Premier League player Justin Fashanu came out to the public and was instantly torn to shreds. Not only did he receive a flogging by the media and homophobic fans, but his own brother publically announced that he was ashamed of Fashanu only a day after he came out. Following that, Fashanu was never really able to find a permanent spot in a team as no one wanted the bad press that followed him. Whilst this was 23 years ago, some of the treatment Fashanu received would be replicated by homophobic AFL fans if a player was to come out to the public. That fear is ultimately what is holding gay players back, so action must be taken first to ensure that backlash is stamped out before any player can be openly gay in public.
The initiative of a gay pride round was something suggested by Jeff Kennett last year and the AFL has shown some interest in it. As it stands, the AFL could make the homophobic culture worse by introducing Pride Round if it is treated like Indigenous Round. The initiative of Indigenous Round has certainly aided in breaking down the cultural barrier but the way commentators and AFL media personalities continually stereotype and pigeonhole Indigenous players as the ‘quick and electric’ type only does damage as a the stigma it supports.
Hypothetically, if an outside midfielder came out to the AFL and commentators pigeonholed gay players as being essentially soft, then the point of Pride Round would be lost amongst a sea of stigmas. Pride Round itself is a great initiative; a Pride March and pre-game festivities would a great way of breaking down the homophobic culture and allowing a sense of acceptance to replace those ingrained homophobic standpoints. The success of the entire project, however, depends on how commentators and media personalities treat gay players.
The AFL is missing its first big opportunity to stamp out homophobia. More than 80,000 people will attend Richmond vs. Carlton and there will surely be over 1,000,000 people watching at home. The AFL should have made Round 1 Pride Round with the first AFL game in Melbourne for the season being the focal point, as Daniel Jackson and Brock McLean both playing. The reach this game has could be monumental for the gay community but the AFL is simply not doing enough to rid the game of the homophobic culture.
The AFL may argue that Pride Round could take the shine off Round 1 but an overwhelming majority of supporters wouldn’t boycott the game purely because there is a Pride March before it. If the AFL supports Pride Round in good taste and doesn’t make it overtly sexual like Mardi Gras, then even the most homophobic fans would not have a reason to complain.
Homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted around the world and if the AFL doesn’t use its power to support gay pride sooner rather than later, the AFL will be left behind.