New Goals31 October 2012
The football field is the Mecca of Australian masculinity, where weakness is the enemy. Sledging your man by spitting “faggot” at him is as common as hot pies and cold drinks. It is in this place that a gay man is most terrified to speak the truth about his sexuality.
Jason Ball, 24, thought he would never come out to his football club, a major part of his life since he was five years old. He had told his parents, his school friends and work colleagues, but still avoided conversations about girls and relationships with his teammates at the Yarra Glen Football Club.
“I remember having a conversation with one guy, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend, and then he put it back on me and said ‘What about you? You’re in a relationship aren’t you?’ and I was like ‘Yes I am.’”
“And my heart’s beating really fast and I’m thinking ‘Is this where I have to tell him?’, and he said ‘What’s his name?’”
“He said ‘Has he come to any football matches yet?’ I said ‘No.’ and he said ‘Well you should bring him down. It would be great to meet him.’”
It’s not the reaction one would expect, and it’s definitely not what Jason expected when he finally came out to his teammates.
“They were incredible. I think I was very lucky in a regional country town to have people like that.”
Jason, a gay footballer, watched as the AFL used its considerable voice to tackle racism and promote respect for women. The significant changes wrought there made him think that voice could help young people like him who are terrified of being shown the door at their clubs.
In September he called upon the AFL to screen anti-homophobia advertisements during the Grand Final, to even consider a “Pride Round” to show that homophobia isn’t okay for players or spectators at any level. The slow reaction from the AFL and the defence from the old guard that ‘the AFLcan’t solve everything’ highlighted an issue that has been swept under the rug for too long.
Does the AFL have a homophobia problem?
Last year the Western Bulldogs’ Justin Sherman was suspended for four matches and asked to pay $5,000 to charity after racially vilifying another player.
Will Minson was suspended by the Bulldogs this year for making a comment about his opponent’s mother.
In August, St Kilda’s Stephen Milne was fined just $3,000 for calling Harry O’Brien a “fucking homo”. He wasn’t suspended.
Commentators and talkback callers were quick to condemn the former incidents, but the punishment for a homophobic slur was brushed off by many as an overreaction and political correctness gone mad.
A player’s race and his family are well and truly off limits on the field and off, but despite professing an inclusive environment, the AFL is moving slowly in taking a stance against homophobia.
Jason Ball has watched these events unfold as a country footballer with disappointment.
“What was sad for me was Harry O’Brien—who is someone I really respect—said he had no problem with it because he’s not gay, so it doesn’t matter. But I thought he would have the maturity to say ‘It’s not on for those people I know who are gay or who might be gay because it is insulting to them’—but he didn’t say that.”
Jason decided that this year was the time to tell the AFL to take a stand against homophobia. It was a big step in a league that includes Milne, his apologists, and Jason ‘stay in the closet’ Akermanis.
It was a giant leap from the boy who feared he would be kicked out of the team if he revealed his sexuality. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to play if they found out.”
Jason’s campaign on Change.org shows that the homophobia in football matters, with over 27,000 signatures supporting a push for the AFL to speak out and “show all of the gay supporters and players that the AFL has got their back”.
Before Jason’s face, before his voice, a gay footy player was a shadowy, mythical creature. Since Jason has been in every newspaper and 6pm news bulletin, many have seen that a gay footballer doesn’t threaten the game, or any ill-founded sense of masculinity.
The AFL, however, was silent on the campaign for almost two weeks, until Jason received a call from AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou. Demetriou told Jason that the No To Homophobia advertisements would play on the big screen at the two preliminary finals. The AFL is also considering holding a gay pride round in the same way that indigenous and women’s rounds are celebrated.
“I didn’t necessarily have high expectations,” Jason says. “I do feel though that it’s probably not something that is going to happen overnight. I know that there are people within the AFL who do feel strongly about this.”
Jason believes the AFL does have the ability to change and has high hopes for a new culture around homosexuality and football—eventually.
“I think the day that a football player brings his boyfriend in a tux down the red carpet to the Brownlow will be a pretty special day.”
Jason hopes that his story of a welcoming, accepting club with supportive teammates will help others in his situation.
“When I figured it out, the only thing I knew about being gay was that it was something that was reviled by society… I didn’t have any positive picture in my head of what it meant to be gay.”
Slurs like Milne’s aren’t unusual on the football field, creating a hostile environment for a young man who feels like an outsider.
“Gay slurs are sort of a regular part of their vocab and that culture, and that kind of stuff made me feel like I wouldn’t be welcome if I came out. That was all I really had to go on.”
The reaction to Jason’s story has varied. Former Premier Jeff Kennett reached out, offering the support of Beyond Blue for his cause. Former Brisbane Lions and Western Bulldogs player Jason Akermanis, who suffers from a chronic foot-in-mouth condition, tweeted “Who cares?” in relation to Ball’s campaign. Ball’s supporters rallied with the hash tag #WeCareJason. Akermanis deleted the tweet, and then later deleted his whole account after the backlash.
Jason’s story has set the record straight on the misconceptions surrounding homosexuality and football. Last year Jason Akermanis wrote that homosexual players should stay in the closet. He talked of his discomfort in the locker rooms with a gay team mate.
“Locker room nudity is an everyday part of our lives and unlike any other work place. I believe it would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay.”
Jason Ball laughed when I mentioned this to him and said that nothing had changed in the locker room since he had come out.
“I’ve played on good looking players and very ugly players and it does not affect my game. I still want to beat them just as much.” His sexuality may be different to his teammates’, but the importance of winning the ball is the same.
In the week after the media attention, Jason played in the Grand Final for Yarra Glen. He zoned out to any shouts from over the fence, but has since found out that he and his sexuality were a topic of conversation around the ground.
“There was a lot of confusion… people were not sure if it threatened their masculinity if they said they were okay with me being gay. I heard some really inspiring stories of guys who I would not have expected at all, who really stood up for me from my team, from opposition, supporters.”
It is the threat to masculinity that has formed parts of Professor Murray Drummond’s research into sport and the culture that surrounds it. “The sports where we have a larger amount of violence… what they call blood sports and so forth… if you’re involved in those sports you are perceived to be more masculine.”
He agrees with Jason that change is needed but that change in football culture will be incremental. “The AFL still has the opportunity to be proactive, it doesn’t have to be the panacea for every social issue, but there are certainly social issues that it can address… other people will say it’s not an issue because we don’t have gay men playing AFL football. Well, we don’t have gay men playing AFL football because they’re not coming out, so we don’t know, it’s a chicken or the egg type thing.”
Jason says “I’m not asking them to solve homophobia, I’m just asking them to tackle homophobia in football. The AFL is part of the problem.”
At the time of publication, not a single current AFL player has voiced support for Jason, or his campaign. “I’m sure they’re aware of the issue, but their silence is pretty deafening. I think no one wants to be first.”
The AFL is only just beginning to move against homophobia, but Jason’s supportive family and club give him the strength to laugh at an issue that once terrified him.
“I remember my Dad was okay with me coming out, but if I was to barrack for any other team but Collingwood I would have been kicked out.”