‘Culture of silence’: Why the AFL still has no openly gay players

Sydney gay Aussie Rules player Michael O'Donnell
Image: ABC

ABC’s Four Corners program has asked why the AFL is the only major professional sporting code in the world without an openly gay male player.

Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan spoke to gay Aussie Rules players on the toll of homophobia in sport. Milligan describes a “pervasive” culture of “silence” around homosexuality persisting in the AFL.

Sydney Aussie Rules amateur footballer Michael O’Donnell (above) told Four Corners a lack of gay role models and homophobic language ultimately drove him out of the sport as a young person.

“It was just random jokes, little, subtle words. You hear it constantly, and it really digs into you,” he said.

“Hearing those sorts of words, it internalises your homophobia and it creates a sort of self-perpetuating hate within you as well. That can be really, really difficult to deal with.”

O’Donnell said he missed out on 15 years of football and now wants every child entering the sport to feel safe.

Watch Four Corners’ The Silence episode below:

Homophobic language in AFL still pervasive and harmful

Four Corners found that two decades after a government order to AFL clubs to develop policies and processes to deal with complaints, no club had fully implemented recommendations laid out in 2000.

In 2014, then AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou signed a public commitment to eradicate homophobia from the game.

Researcher Dr Erik Denison, who studies the impacts of homophobia in sport, said ten years later the sport hadn’t kept to this commitment.

“Since 2014 we’ve done analysis of the different sports looking at who’s taken action, who hasn’t, and the AFL is way at the bottom,” he told Four Corners.

According to Out in the Fields, the constant use of homophobic language in the AFL is a key factor in why players hide their sexuality.

Recent research found nearly three quarters of young Aussie Rules (amateur AFL) players aged 16–20 heard teammates using homophobic slurs in the past month.

And forty-three percent of adult male VFL and Aussie Rules players reported they had used homophobic slurs with teammates in the past two weeks.

It’s that constant homophobic language that causes particular harm to gay and bisexual boys and men.

Children who hear homophobic language are more likely to hide their sexuality, drop out of the sport and attempt suicide.

AFL CEO’s comments ‘concerning’

The AFL told the ABC in a statement its clubs are environments where players and staff are “confident and supported in bringing their authentic selves to work”.

“We are proud that people of all backgrounds play our game and work in our game and would be proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with any person who chooses to tell their story publicly,” the AFL said.

In April, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan made headlines with his comments about gay players in the league.

McLachlan suggested gay players in the AFL hadn’t come out due to “the pressure and the weight” of being the first. He said he “understood why they would choose not to have to carry that burden around, forever.”

But those who spoke to Four Corners criticised McLachlan for not publicly asking what he could do to make the sport a safer place for them.

Aussie Rules player Jason Ball came out in 2012. At the time, he fronted a high-profile petition against homophobic slurs in AFL.

He said Gillon McLachlan’s comments sent the wrong message.

“A burden is having to hide who you are every single day,” Ball said.

“A burden is not being able to talk about your relationships, about what you’re doing on the weekend, because people might figure out your sexuality.

“Being a role model, being open about who you are, being proud of who you are — it’s not a burden, it’s a privilege.”

Michael O’Donnell said Gillon McLachlan’s comments suggest the AFL is “in denial” about their culture.

“If [Gillon McLachlan] can’t use the right words that suggests to me that it hasn’t been discussed at a higher level or on a wider basis. And that’s quite concerning,” he said.

“If the AFL aren’t prepared, they’re in denial and it creates a bit of a vacuum as well.”

Retired AFL captain says gay AFL player would be supported

Former Western Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy, who is straight, now works for the Fremantle Dockers. Murphy promised he and others would embrace a gay player who did come out.

“You will be fought for and supported,” Murphy said.

“If there was a dissenting voice, they would told to shut the f__k up or get out.

“For a player to stand in front of his teammates and say, ‘I’m gay and I’m one of you and I want you to accept me’, that would be a superpower for your football team and club.

“I want a gay footballer in my football club so we can wrap our arms around him and say, ‘You’re one of us. We love you. You’re brave. You’re braver than anyone in this league, so that makes us braver than anyone else’.

“That will help us win. Then we might get change.”

If you need support, help is available from QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at QLife.org.au, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

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