A prominent openly gay Australian Rules footballer has urged other gay footballers to come out, as the major sporting codes came together in a forum to tackle homophobia in sports.
Victorian footballer Jason Ball – who first revealed he was gay in an interview with The Age in September 2012 when playing as a senior for Yarra Glenn – said on Wednesday that if he had been aware of a footballer who identified as homosexual when he was younger, it would have made a huge difference to him.
“Being gay doesn’t define who I am [but] there’s no denying that it is a huge part of my identity, and to have to hide that is actually quit taxing,” he told football television show AFL 360.
“When I was young, if I had known of a footballer that was gay, and that they could be out to their teammates and it would be okay, that would have made a huge difference to me.”
Ball said the AFL was the only major football code worldwide that had not had an openly gay professional player.
But he said the support of AFL stars such as Carlton’s Brock McLean and Richmond’s Dan Jackson – who both attended the Pride March in St Kilda in March – was enormously important.
“They were really willing to get behind this cause, they came and marched at Pride March this year….to them it was a really small gesture, but to the gay community it meant a whole lot,” he said. “AFL players are role models in society, and for them to get behind this issue is a really powerful gesture.”
Ball’s comments came as a man claiming to be the ex-partner of an AFL player – calling himself Luke – rang into radio station ABC 774, saying a significant factor in the demise of his relationship with the footballer had been the “paranoia and the fear of harassment that would follow” if his partner had come out as gay.
“The issue of homophobia has been a very painful experience for me and for him,” Luke said.
A text message read out on air from listener Martin read; “as long as the AFL will insist on using the term ‘WAGs’, how can we expect the footy players to introduce their male partners”.
On Wednesday, AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and Sydney Swans player Mike Pyke attended a meeting with representatives of all major sporting code in a forum designed to tackle homophobia and formulate policies to stamp out discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2012, Mr Demetriou said the AFL was ready to embrace their first openly gay player,after American NBA player Jason Collins became the first active American sportsman to announce he was gay.
Demetriou said Collins’ was a landmark moment and backed any AFL player who wanted to ‘come out’ publicly.
“It’s a strong step forward for acceptance,” he said at the time.
“I would hope that any Australian sportsman or woman, and particularly an AFL player, would feel equally comfortable and we would strongly support them, as would the wider football public”.
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire has also admitted to sharing a “wink and a nod” with gay AFL players, in an interview with gay magazine DNA in 2010.
McGuire said he had known gay AFL players and acknowledged their secret.
“Surely there have been players who are gay,” he told DNA.
McGuire said he’d be happy to provide a platform for any gay player to come out to the wider football community.
“I wouldn’t do it for the sake of a story but if they wanted to go forward and do something I would be in a good position to offer them a haven to express themselves.”
After coming out to his teammates in 2012, Ball started the campaign ‘Say No to Homophobia’, which called on the AFL to screen ads promoting equality during the grand final and asked for a commitment to a pride round for the 2013 season, the latter ultimately unsuccessful.
However, the petition – which received more than 27,000 signatures – was responsible for anti-homophobia ads running on the big screen at prime-time fixtures around Australia.
In a revealing and personal address at the AFL Respect and Responsibility Program, in January, Ball said the positive reaction from his teammates had helped him enormously.
“They were really willing to get behind this cause,” he said.
with Jessica Wright
Published in The Age, April 9 2014