This weekend is a historic one for the AFL, and Australian sport more generally.
Saturday night’s match between St Kilda and Sydney will mark the first ever ‘Pride Game’. The inaugural match will celebrate the LGBTQI fans, players and staff working in the AFL community.
“It’s a historic moment, not just in the AFL but in world sport,” St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis said. “The unfortunate reality is the LGBTI community haven’t felt welcome at sport or at the footy.”
AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan continued with this sentiment, believing it was time the AFL used its influence to stamp out homophobia.
“We’re not trying to be the social leader on everything, but issues come up from time to time that we need to lead on and this is one of them,” McLachlan said. “We’re not going to solve anything through this one game.”
“Hopefully, we can make a small indent in young people’s lives so they feel comfortable coming out or having the conversations they need to have, and if they feel that little bit more accepted we’ve done our role.”
The theme for the match is rainbow, in honour of the gay pride flag. Rainbow will feature on the numbers of the Saints’ jumpers, the Sydney players’ socks, the goal umpire’s flags and on the 50 metre arcs.
But outrage over the game was expected. Anytime the AFL takes a stance on an issue outside the traditional realm of footy, people tend to get angry. Radio broadcaster Tom Elliot wasn’t shy in lending his voice to this anger, saying he doesn’t want the AFL to “lecture” him on “political messages”.
“I don’t care if it’s about indigenous culture or gay players or multiculturalism or women’s issues or whatever,” Elliot said.
But this sort of flippant, and frankly downright ignorant attitude, just emphasises why initiatives like the Pride Game are so important.
Sport can be a special place. It does bring people from all areas of society together and differences are often put aside in favour of the action on the field.
But unfortunately, there is a culture surrounding the sport which lends itself to discrimination. Although things are changing, racism, homophobia, and sexism are still prevalent to this day.
At this point in time, there is no openly gay footballer at AFL level. There never has been, even though statistically speaking there would be gay players in the league.
This speaks volumes.
So this is why we need a Pride Game. It’s not about making the AFL more ‘political’. It’s about making the AFL an environment where people are able to feel comfortable and confident with who they are.
(First published on The Roar on August 12th 2016)