AFL’s growing problem with its ‘invisible’ gay footballers

In one key respect, the AFL is looking increasingly out of touch with our broader society: the glaring lack of anybody in the male playing group who is out and openly gay when, in most other spheres of life, people now feel comfortable and safe to come out.

As with sensible modern corporations, the AFL’s executives and key figures are well versed in the phraseology of diversity and inclusivity. The AFLW competition includes many LGBTQ players, a fact that goes virtually unremarked upon, and clubs Sydney and St Kilda play an annual pride match.

Josh Cavallo of the Adelaide United A-League men’s team.Credit:Getty Images

Of course a person’s sexuality is their own business and nobody would wish that someone felt pressured to come out as gay. We can understand, in fact, why a player would be reluctant: like it or not, they would become an instant activist, a trailblazer, an icon, a lightning rod. No doubt much of the attention would be positive, but there would probably also be a deluge of hate – across the fence, on talkback radio, perhaps from others on the field, and particularly in the cesspools of social media.

When A-League player Josh Cavallo became the first active top-flight male professional soccer player in the world to come out as gay, he received enormous support from some quarters, including landing a lucrative sponsorship. But once the acclaim had died down, he fielded homophobic slurs and death threats. Understandably, not everybody feels they can cope with that.


If and when a same-sex-attacted AFL player decides they no longer want to keep their private life private, the league will need to actively support them. It should, if it has not already done so, have a plan in place. It will not be enough for the competition to say it is none of its business, or, worse, to rely on a particular player in order to market itself as an “inclusive” organisation.

Erik Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences, wrote in The Age last year that “the invisibility of [gay] male AFL players is a symptom of a serious problem that has long been ignored by the AFL and other governing bodies”, which is that people actually fear coming out, fear being themselves. His own research suggested the AFL had done “less on the issue of homophobia than any other major sport in Australia, or globally”.

The tide may slowly be turning. Fox Footy sacked reporter Tom Morris over sexist and homophobic remarks he made about a female colleague as well as separate racist slurs. Not long ago, he would surely have survived with an apology, or less. It was encouraging, too, when Geelong captain Joel Selwood said recently he would be proud to see a male AFL player come out as gay.

But the culture in the football community is still largely what academics would call “heteronormative”: in other words, aggressively heterosexual. As Greg Baum and Sam McClure wrote on Monday of the Morris tapes, “The laddish tone and homophobic language used in the recordings also raised the question: how tolerant is the AFL industry, really, of LGBTQI people?”

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