The AFL has announced its first ever Pride Game to support the LGBTI community, believed to be a world first for a professional sporting competition.
St Kilda’s Saints will wear shirts with rainbow-patterned numbers and the Swans will wear rainbow socks to show their support for the LGBTI community during the round 21 clash next month.
St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis said at the launch of the round that it was “a proud and important day for our football club and the AFL.”
“I want to pay tribute to Jason Ball and the Yarra Glen Football Club who initiated the 2014 Community Pride Cup which paved the way for this inaugural AFL Pride Game,” he said.
In 2012, Jason Ball (pictured below, centre) became the first male Australian rules football player at any level to publicly come out as gay.
He and the regional Yarra Glen football club organised the 2014 Community Pride Cup, paving the way for the AFL’s Pride Game this year, which Jason said he believes will have “a profound impact.”
“I’m incredibly proud to be here today, and there’s no more appropriate place than the St Kilda club to be hosting the first Pride Game at the national level,” Ball said.
“Over the past few years, we’ve had staff come to meetings of the [Yarra Glen Pride Cup] to take notes and to learn how to do this in a genuine and meaningful way, so it is going to make a difference.”
Ball said he hoped to see the Pride Game become an annual fixture, just as the AFL’s Indigenous Round has.
AFL football operations manager Mark Evans said he was confident the league is ready for a gay player.
“We’ve done some work with our player groups at AFL clubs and we know there’ll be some difficulties for a player who does come out,” he said.
“It ultimately has to be their decision. When a player or players are ready to do that, then so are we.
“We’re really confident that will be well handled at club level and it’ll help us take another conversation to the world stage.”
Ball said that as he was growing up and coming to terms with his sexuality, he thought his football club was the one place he thought he’d never be accepted.
“Homophobic language was routinely used on the field and it left me scared to be myself,” he said.
“Struggling in silence with my identity caused me so much heartache and pushed me to a very dark place. An event like this Pride Game would have made all the difference and given me confidence that I could belong.
“I’ve seen the impact a Pride Game had in my local community; it has changed the culture of clubs and created a safer, more inclusive environment for all players and supporters. I am so proud to see it taken to the national stage and I have no doubt it will be a life-changing event for many within the AFL family.”
He said a professional player coming out as gay would be “a potential role model for young people struggling to come to terms with who they are and understanding that being gay doesn’t put you in a box.”
“You can still be anything you want, you can still be an AFL footballer. It’s incredibly powerful what St Kilda, the Sydney Swans and the AFL are doing. It’s really going to change lives,” he said.
“There would be a lot of pressures on [a gay player] at the elite level. It’s different for me as a country footballer, football is not my career.
“My message to them is don’t be afraid to be who you are. You’ll be surprised by how accepting the community and the AFL community will be, if you give them the chance.”
The St Kilda vs Sydney Swans Pride Game will be played at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium on Saturday, August 13.