Australian Rugby Star Jason Ball Comes Out to Fight Homophobia
Sports in the United States have been making strides, albeit small ones, in combating homophobia inside the lines. On another hemisphere, Australian rugby has been proven a leader in acceptance and respect - both athletically and socially.
Australian Rules footballer Jason Ball was the spearhead for change when he became the first player in his sport to come out of the closet.
Ball said the homophobia he heard and saw from teammates was a result of them thinking there was no way a gay man would be on their team, let alone play rugby at all. To his surprise, Ball was met with open arms instead of the hostility he assumed he would get from telling his teammates he was gay.
"It was the one place I never thought I'd be able to come out. Ever. It just felt like a really hostile environment. I worried I'd be bullied, maybe I'd get kicked out of the side, maybe the opposition would treat me differently or I'd get abuse [from supporters] over the fence," he told The Sunday Age. "I didn't know any footballers who were gay, so I could only assume the worst, and it scared me."
Ball urged the Australian Football League to screen anti-homophobia ads, and to stage a gay pride round, similar to the league's multicultural and indigenous rounds.
League boss Andrew Demetriou told 3AW that the league was looking into the possibility.
"If we get behind something we genuinely believe in and if it's something that we think we can help raise awareness and shift attitudes then we would support it," he said."We would consult with experts in this matter and get the best advice to see how we can address this issue properly like we did with illicit drugs. I want to make sure then if we do go down this track we do it properly."
Ball's petition garnered more than 26,000 signatures through social change movement www.Change.org. He told The Age he was delighted by the development.
"The fact that the AFL is considering a pride round, amongst a host of other options, is amazing news. Nothing would send a better message to gay players and fans that they're welcome and included in this game we love," he said.
The Australian Football League (which is governed by rules that are different from traditional rugby; for the difference between the two, see side bar) has started to run anti-homophobia ads from No To Homophobia before matches starting with their Grand Final matches earlier this month. The No to Homophobia Campaign challenges homophobia, biphobia and transphobia wherever it occurs in the community, including in sports. There are strong links between harassment and health issues like anxiety disorders, depression and even self-harm and suicide.
"Sadly, in many sports - particularly male sports - homophobic insults and abuse are commonplace and directed towards both players and umpires," said No To Homophobia coordinator Daniel Scoullar. "The AFL is the most influential sports organisation in Australia and it has a huge leadership role in the community. They would be the first to admit that there hasn't been enough work done to stamp out homophobic harassment and vilification in football, but we are impressed with their initial commitment to making up for that by partnering with us over the next year and beyond."
The AFL and No to Homophobia are still working out the details that would include public initiatives such as the AFL's letter of support and playing the anti-homophobia ads at football stadiums before games. It will also involve grassroots education and enforcement of anti-vilification guidelines throughout the sports code starting with junior leagues and continuing right up to the elite level.
No to Homophobia will be speaking to other sports organizations, as well, over the next year. The organization's leadership hopes to use the progress they've made with the AFL and the excellent work already done in Australia by Hockey Victoria and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (through its Fair Go, Sport initiative) as a model for how sporting codes can make sure they are safe and welcoming places for everyone in the community.
For more information on how No To Homophobia and the AFL are working together, go to www.notohomophobia.com.au.