20 February 2012


This article appeared in the Fairfax media over the weekend of 19 February 2012.

Rob Mitchell tells how there is no change in homophobia in footy games in Australia after years and years of trying to get changes!

AFL needs to man up on homophobia issue
Rob Mitchell
February 19, 2012

Andrew Demetriou: says the AFL is educating players on gay issues. Photo: Paul Rovere

THE head of the AFL, Andrew Demetriou, ought to take his colleague Jeff Kennett out to lunch.

Along with his credit card, Mr Demetriou might want to take a notepad. If events this week are any guide, he could learn a lot from Mr Kennett.

Earlier this week, Mr Kennett was on radio talking about depression. As chairman of the national anti-depression outfit beyondblue, and after a long stint as president of the Hawthorn Football Club, he is adept at using his high media profile to destigmatise depression and suicide.

The interview took an unexpected turn. While talking about depression in professional footballers, Mr Kennett went on to say that approximately 5 per cent of professional AFL footballers are gay, and the fact that none of them were publicly ''out'' was a major cause for concern because having to hide their sexual orientation - particularly in the goldfish bowl of AFL football - was highly detrimental to their mental health.

Mr Kennett's track record with gay issues has been troubled - he ended up at loggerheads with his previous chief executive, Dawn O'Neil, over comments about gay parenting - but his 5 per cent figure is a reasonable assumption. Research undertaken by beyondblue shows that in men aged 25 and under, some 10 per cent will identify as same-sex attracted. Given that half of the 800-odd professional AFL footballers are aged under 25, that would suggest about 40 players are gay in that age group alone. The research also tells us AFL is regarded as the most homophobic of all the football codes.

Naturally, Mr Kennett's comments were later put to Andrew Demetriou, who, as luck would have it, was already well and truly in diversity mode at a function spruiking the AFL's credentials in respect towards women.

Mr Demetriou assured the media that the AFL was ''ahead of the game'' when it came to ensuring the code was inclusive of gay men, not only because discrimination based on sexual orientation was now included in the AFL anti-vilification code, but also due to the fact that all footballers have seen a video of gay Olympic swimmer Daniel Kowalski talking about his own experience in coming out.

Who's he trying to kid? The cold hard reality is that the AFL has as little to do with the gay community as it possibly can. The rule change that Mr Demetriou referred to only occurred after some 18 months of intensive lobbying by the gay community, and when finally sexual orientation was included in the anti-vilification section of the AFL rules, it was 10 years after the same provision was placed in Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act.

And while it's useful for footballers to watch a video on what it is like to be an elite gay swimmer, surely that pulls up well short of the kind of education we can reasonably expect the AFL to give its players.

The AFL has also conveniently forgotten to mention that it is paid more than $400,000 a year from the Australian Sports Commission to make the code more inclusive.

Truth is, there are no ''out'' gay AFL footballers because they refuse to self-identify in an environment that they perceive to be toxic. The responsibility for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the administrators. Not the players. Not the fans. Not the umpires. Not the coaches.

The drivel that is put forward from the AFL about coming out being ''a personal choice'' is precisely that. For the AFL to say that all their gay players are ''choosing'' to remain in the closet is ridiculous.

It beggars belief that a gay AFL footballer would not want his partner to be involved in events like the Brownlows. Not because they are looking to be activists, but because they want to be able to be honest with everyone around them. Why does the AFL not get that?

Further, the AFL as administrators refuse to make any effort to help their gay players, not because they lack the resources - the AFL earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year and pays no income tax - but simply because they don't want to. And they don't want to because, despite the lip service, diversity and inclusion is not regarded as core business.

If the AFL wanted to, it could transform the issue of homophobia in football in a heartbeat. When the AFL Players Association ran a ground-breaking project for the International Day Against Homophobia two years ago, the AFL took notice and was getting ready to run a diversity round to highlight the value of inclusion in sport. Then along came Jason Akermanis with his infamous ''Stay in the closet'' newspaper column, and the wheels fell off. As a result, the AFL decided, again, to put gay in the too-hard basket.

While the AFL refuses to address the issue of homophobia in the code, it's never going to get any better. It's not an unreasonable expectation for the AFL to do equality equally. Now would be a good time to start.

Rob Mitchell is a member of the Victorian Department of Sport governance and inclusion project.

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90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm