Is sexual orientation an issue in sport?
Date: April 11, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
Much was made yesterday of what was dubbed a historic moment in sport when the major professional codes in Australia signed an “Anti-Homophobic Framework”.
The parties to the document were Cricket Australia, Football Federation Australia, Australian Football League, Australian Rugby Union and the National Rugby League.
It marked the first time anywhere in the world that the major professional sporting bodies in any one country had signed on to tackle discrimination in sport on the basis of sexual orientation.
The issue first became a real talking point in Australian sport in 1995 when rugby league enforcer Ian Roberts spoke publicly of being gay.
At the time he was still playing in the NRL and in 1997 he signed on as skipper of the North Queensland Cowboys before being forced into retirement by injury the following year.
Roberts was a trailblazer in Australian sport – the first high-profile sportsman to publicly announce he was gay.
Understandably, given the precedent, Roberts’ decision to go public created a maelstrom of media interest.
Many felt that in the wake of his private life becoming public knowledge it may influence other sportspeople to make such admissions.
It has however been a trickle rather than a torrent, especially with respect to male athletes.
However during the same period there has been a long list of high-profile Australians to have followed Roberts’ suit from High Court judges and politicians, to media identities and academics.
That is of course not to say that every member of the LGBIT (lesbian, gay, bisexual intersexed and transgendered) world has spoken publicly of their sexual orientation – and neither of course should they be expected or compelled to do so.
Yet since Roberts’ public utterances with respect to his sexuality there have been few other profile Australian sportsmen to do likewise with Olympic diving gold medallist Matthew Mitcham and Olympic swimming medallist Daniel Kowalski among the small number to have stepped forward.
Whilst there are few impediments in most occupations nowadays with respect to one’s sexuality becoming widely known, there has however been many comments proffered within sporting circles about the impact such an admission would have on the participant’s standing within their sport and the broader community – and again, this is almost always slanted more critically toward sportsmen than sportswomen.
Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis told gay AFL players to “stay in the closet” in an article he penned for the Herald Sun in May 2010.
He wrote that such a public admission by a player “could break the fabric of the club …. to come out is unnecessary for a lot of reasons”.
Fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago when AFL journalist Damien Barrett stated that the AFL is not ready for an openly gay footballer.
His opinion was supported by former Hawthorn champion Jason Dunstall.
It is no doubt that comments and beliefs such as those that have seen the major professional codes unite under a banner of tolerance with respect to sexual orientation.
In the football codes in particular there seems to be this irrational belief that homosexuals just do not fit the required mould.
Perhaps that is why Mitcham and Kowalski – who were engaged in non-contact, non-combative sports – were not major headlines with regard to their sexuality to the extent that a professional footballer would be.
Surely though we are at a tipping point, or hopefully, even a tad beyond it.
It was not that long ago that a sportsman – almost regardless of the code – would have been vilified and belittled had he chosen to raise publicly that he was suffering from a mental illness.
Yet, earlier this week, Melbourne AFL player Mitch Clark announced his retirement at age 26 as a result of suffering from depression.
The news of his condition was met universally with words of support and encouragement.
The same was proffered to the likes of fellow AFL players Nathan Thompson and Wayne Schwass and other sportsmen such as cricketer Ryan Campbell.
Gone are the days where sportsmen are seen as automatically being weak or lacking courage if they admit to having mental health issues.
What was once cause for general mirth and derision by many is no longer seen in the same light.
Roberts, Mitcham and Kowalski have hopefully blazed a trail of sorts for others who may also feel they wish to make their sexual orientation public knowledge.
Like most things that happen away from the field of play there is really no reason for the wider population to know about the private lives of their heroes.
However, should they wish to make that call themselves, they deserve the same respect as anyone of their teammates.
Hats off to the major professional codes that have chosen to publicly unite to support some of their own participants.
The sad thing is that we still have to take such measures in the 21st century.
First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 10 April 2014