Ordinarily for a person realising that they are gay, ‘coming out’ is a seemingly difficult task. There are worries of disappointing family and friends, and with this, fear of losing acceptance.
Additionally imagine the added pressure of being a gay footballer, and having to reveal your sexuality within a masculine culture, where homophobic language is part of the everyday vernacular.
24-year-old Yarra Valley footballer Jason Ball had this very experience.
Ball, who has been playing football since the age of five, initially hid his sexuality from his teammates, in fear they would react in a negative manner.
“I would not really open up to the guys much, I would not get involved in any conversations that were to do with girls or relationships and I was kind of miserable to be in that situation,” Ball said.
However, since taking a leap of faith and courage ‘coming out,’ Ball is leading the movement to erase the anti-homophobic culture he believes is prominent within the AFL.
“When I realised I was gay I had no positive idea of what it meant to be gay, let alone what it would mean to be gay in a football community,” he said.
It was this that encouraged him to share his experiences and launch a petition on change.org, appealing to the AFL to follow the steps they have previously taken towards equality through declaring their support to the ‘No To Homophobia’ campaign.
Ball and over 27,000 other signatories of the petition lobbied to the AFL to play anti-homophobia advertisements during the Grand Final and implement a ‘Pride Round’ in the 2013 season.
The results; the AFL played the advertisements during the preliminary finals and the initial planning stages for introducing a ‘Pride Round’ are in the works, with both of these milestones significant steps in shaping an anti-homophobic future.
The movement has been received well within the footballing community, with only around five per cent of the feedback being negative. Although, Ball only takes this in his stride.
“There has been some really nasty stuff. But I don’t let that worry me,” Ball said.
Ball even believes that Jason Akermanis’ blatant criticism and homophobic comments directly regarding the campaign haven’t had a huge impact, but rather the opposite.
“As soon as he referenced the story, I mentioned that it was another opportunity to get publicity (and) raise awareness,” Ball said.
“The fact he responded in a negative way just demonstrated that there was a problem, which in a way just furthered the cause and support.”
Ball has surprised himself with how far he has come with the campaign, always hoping there would be a solution to the issue although not realising that he could partake in an active role in moving towards this.
He was equally shocked with how his own football club reacted to the campaign, with people who he expected the least amount of support from being supportive of him and the cause.
“Homophobic slurs do drop out of (the team’s) vocabulary because all of a sudden it has become very real to how it affects me, and I’m one of their mates,” Ball said.
It is apparent that with the correct training and support, as well as a leadership role by the AFL, a homophobic culture is one that can be reduced and eventually eradicated.
The main objectives of the movement are to raise awareness of homophobia within AFL at an elite and grassroots levels, recognise that it is an issue and educate all of players, coaches and supporters about anti-homophobic behaviour.
He suggests that the players want to do the right thing, although are unsure about how to go about this, so this is where education programs are necessary and valuable.
In the past, the AFL has taken a leap towards equality through recognising the contributions of women, as well as taking a multicultural stance to eradicate racism.
“If the AFL takes a leadership role, like they did against racism and attitudes towards women then they can transform the (homophobic) culture from the top,” Ball said.
With the prominence of the gay rights debate in society, particularly through gay marriage, it is a fitting time for the AFL to take an anti-homophobic stance and declare its support.
The fact that there are currently no elite AFL players who are openly gay is also very telling of the pressures of the current environment.
“The end goal is sort of to be at a stage where a player can come out, and it’s not such a big deal. There’s no backlash, it is kind of ‘so what?’” Ball said.
“Once we see player’s being open about their sexuality, that is when we know we have gotten somewhere.”
To sign the petition started by Jason Ball on change.org, click here and show your support for equality in football.