Changing AFL Culture

Womens AFL World Champions 2011, by Flying Cloud

I learned a lot on my radio show last night. I spent an hour on air, talking with my mate Rob Mitchell, with Lisa Catto of the Victorian Women’s Football League, and with Prof Chris Hickey of Deakin University, who has made a study of indigenous footballers.

You can download the podcast here.

I wanted to see if there were any lessons that could be learned to make Australian football a better place for LGBTI people. Here are some of my thoughts.

The women started their own league from scratch, independent of the AFL. Right from the beginning, lesbians were part of the mix. There never was a time when the women’s league had to grapple with ‘the gay issue’. They are vibrant, healthy, and growing exponentially.

They didn’t wait for the AFL  – they went ahead on their own. So right away I thought we ought to start replicating that. Don’t wait for the AFL to change, be the change. What we need, I thought, is a gay men’s Aussie Rules team.  We have a gay soccer team. We have a gay rugby team. And both are very successful. Why don’t we have a gay mens AFL team? Can anyone tell me?

There must be plenty of gay guys who used to play but dropped out. Retired professionals and semi-professionals. Coaches and trainers. Why don’t they get together and start a team? I’m sure the women’s game would help.  Maybe we have to start by showing the AFL what’s possible. Lead by example, with a team of our own. I’m sure beyondblue would be happy to sponsor it!!

The existing men’s game is more problematic. It’s promoted and positioned as a ‘manly’ game. So right away we have a problem. Because the idea of ‘manliness’ is central to the male AFL identity.

Coaches often deride under-performers and opponents as ‘poofs’ and ‘girls.’ If gay players are going to be properly at home in the AFL, this language, and the attitude that underpins it, has to be wiped out. The AFL is going to have to learn that gay is not the opposite of ‘manly”. That gays are as ‘manly’ as any other male.

Sledging – verbally needling an opponent to try to put him off his game – uses the same slurs. That will also have to go. Personally, I’d like to see all sledging outlawed: dare I be British for a moment and say it’s ‘cheap and unsportsmanlike.’

Barracking – supporters shouting anti-gay epithets will have to be stopped too, which will mean the involvement of security staff, and may even involve the use of the law.

It’s not impossible. Racial slurs have been almost entirely stamped out: the same methods can be applied to homophobic language and attitudes. Denigrating women – a particularly nasty form of sledging involves suggesting opponents girlfriend/mother/daughter is imaginatively promiscuous, for example – is also being tackled.

The changes to anti-discrimination law will make such changes essential anyway, so it makes sense for the AFL to get on the front foot.

But these are only superficial changes. Changes in the surface presentation. Can the underlying attitude be changed?

That’s where the indigenous experience is instructive, if not especially encouraging. Only about 2% of the population is indigenous – but they make up between 8-10% of AFL players. On the surface, that looks like success. That looks like racism sorted. The AFL is very proud of what has been achieved, and rightly so.

But as we heard during the show, if players were selected on ability alone, then indigenous Australians are in fact under-represented. There should be more of them.

And many indigenous players get into trouble and fail to make the grade because, while the AFL expects them to adapt and change to fit its overwhelmingly white urban male culture, the AFL has no thought of changing itself to accommodate black culture. As a result, it’s not that welcoming a place.

There are astonishingly few indigenous staff, coaches, managers, trainers, board members, and not a single indigenous AFL commissioner.

Players move out of the AFL as soon as their playing careers are over, instead of building a career inside the AFL. Because ‘they prefer to return to their own culture’. Because despite all their hard work, the AFL remains a hostile, foreign environment in which they do not feel at home. As a result, culturally appropriate support is woefully thin, and so the problem perpetuates itself. I have no solutions to offer: they will have to come from listening to indigenous Australians.

That inflexibility could spell trouble when it comes to LGBTI integration. Because before we can fit in, the men’s game is going to have to become more like the women’s game, fully accepting of sex and gender diversity at all levels. It’s going to have to end the macho put-down culture that drives so much coaching, sledging and barracking. The AFL will need to make a significant long term investment to make it happen.

The end result will be a truly national game, one that represents the full diversity of Australian life, rather than a narrow white slice. In the long run, that can only be good for all concerned.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)