AFL's stance is a clear-cut case of gay abandon
September 2, 2012
By Ben Hart
On matters of homophobia, football doesn't walk the walk.
TANZANIA has no pygmies. Rwanda does. So does Uganda. There are pygmy tribes that originate in Angola, Botswana and Zambia. But none of them come from Tanzania.
This is interesting to those who follow the politics of AFL football only because league chief Andrew Demetriou curiously invoked pygmies last year while defending his organisation against claims that it hadn't done enough to combat homophobia.
''Next they'll be wanting us to sort out the pygmies in Tanzania,'' he said.
I'm sure that if Demetriou had his time again, he'd probably decide against implying that the plight of gays, lesbians and other people discriminated against because of their sexuality was as relevant to the AFL as a non-existent African ethnic group experiencing non-existent hardship.
It was unfortunate because, based on my experience in the AFL industry, I can say pretty confidently that the AFL isn't homophobic. Demetriou and many of the senior people around him pride themselves on having progressive politics.
And, in some areas, they have much to be proud of. You could mount a compelling argument that the AFL has done more than any other sporting organisation to fight racism against indigenous Australians.
So when Demetriou last week wrote a letter supporting a television campaign called No To Homophobia, run by a coalition of social justice organisations, it was commendable.
But it also highlighted the gulf between the AFL's few good gestures in this area and the absence of real action to make the footy world a more inclusive and welcoming place for all people, no matter their sexuality.
The AFL's involvement gave the campaign massive exposure. But, despite newspaper articles saying the AFL was ''lead[ing] the charge'' in the campaign, it had nothing to do with its development. It put no money into it. No AFL representatives participated in the media launch. There are no plans for the ads to be shown at AFL stadiums. If you go on the AFL website, you won't see any mention of the campaign. The truth is that writing letters of support is easy. But a culture is only changed when you do the difficult things.
That's why the recent case of St Kilda fining its forward Stephen Milne $3000 for calling Collingwood's Harry O'Brien a ''f--king homo'' was more significant, and sent a stronger message about how seriously the AFL takes the issue than any letter.
Milne is a repeat offender in this area. In 2010, he used similar homophobic language against Pies assistant coach Paul Licuria and was fined … $3000. (St Kilda issued the fine, but if the AFL wanted it to be harsher, there's no doubt it would have been).
For a football public well versed in the concept of escalating sanctions for repeat offences, and which has witnessed Will Minson being rubbed out for a game for disparaging another player's mother, it spoke volumes: the AFL is taking this seriously, but not that seriously.
For a clue as to why, you only need to go back to Demetriou's pygmy comment. For the AFL, homophobia simply isn't in the same category as, say, racism. It is an external issue, like the environment or homelessness.
Except it isn't. According to the AFL's own figures, there were 791,178 people playing football across the country last year. It is a statistical certainty that a significant number of them are not heterosexual. (Research indicates that between 7 and 11 per cent of young Australians are either same-sex attracted, or confused about their sexual orientation).
I think about a teenage boy in Echuca who is playing for the local under 17s and is secretly struggling with his sexuality. How does he feel when he sees the response to the Milne incident? How does he feel when he hears former player Nathan Brown say on radio: ''If you can't call someone a homo in a joking sense out on the field to put him off his game … what can you say? I mean, come on. It's a joke.''
We know that young people who are same-sex attracted are six times more likely to commit suicide than their ''straight'' peers.
And then there's the issue of whether the senior lists of the AFL's 18 clubs contain any gay players.
No player should feel compelled to come out. It is entirely a matter for them and the first one who does will be a very brave man indeed. But the fact that someone hasn't is significant, and goes directly to the performance of the AFL in promoting diversity.
During my brief stint at the AFL Players Association, it was the question I was asked the most when people found out where I worked.
Strangers at dinner parties would lean forward and, in conspiratorial tones, ask ''So, do you know which ones are gay?'' I always replied that I had no idea. I still don't. There may be none, although this is highly unlikely.
Despite this gossipy obsession in the community, my experience of players' attitudes to this issue was almost wholly positive. It's well documented that the players' association displayed a level of leadership in this space that the AFL couldn't or wouldn't. I was proud to be involved in an AFL player campaign to promote the International Day Against Homophobia. Good, brave men like Nick Duigan, Bob Murphy, Drew Petrie, and Dan Jackson used their profiles to send messages about tolerance and inclusion.
It was the ''difficult stuff'', because the association was going it alone. Ironically, even now when journalists ask the AFL what it has done to stamp out sexuality-based discrimination, it points to the AFLPA campaign - such is the dearth of specific AFL programs or initiatives.
But the good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. The AFL and its CEO could prioritise this today and make a commitment to doing things that are meaningful … and difficult.
Ben Hart was public affairs manager for the AFL Players Association in 2010 and 2011.