AS a sports administrator, I was once asked to confront a player regarding his sexuality.
I did so at the club’s request because of rumour. I chose my words carefully, assuring the player that, whatever his answer, it was ok and we would support him.
The player was receiving mail that essentially amounted to harassment. The club was concerned that it would be destabilising for him and the club in general. The approach was made in what we considered was his best interests, in case he needed support.
In hindsight, it was a deplorable question to ask. I personally did not care what his sexual orientation was and as a club it was none of our business.
In hindsight, it said more about us than him. We were more concerned with our own commercial pressures and management issues.
It is estimated that between one and two per cent of the Australian population is homosexual. There are around 2000 professional players in the country’s four football codes. It therefore stands to reason that somewhere between 20 to 40 of these athletes are homosexual.
Their silence is disturbing in a country where our acceptance of diversity is supposedly robust.
Elsewhere in the Australian landscape one’s sexual preference is of little concern. Parliamentarians, industry leaders, media celebrities, Olympians, actors and artists, be they gay or lesbian, appear to go about their work with little fear of discrimination.
In sport, you pull on that jersey, and the scenario differs. It is the last bastion for homophobia.
These sports try to create a perception of acceptance and tolerance. Publicly, they lead the way in their public determination to rid themselves of the injustice of homophobia or other intolerable discriminatory behaviours.
Yet any heterosexual athlete, coach or administrator who raises their voice in support of gay rights has no one to actually put their arm around and say “you have nothing to fear mate, you’re ok”.
This has yet to be tested. I assume this is because the athletes are full of trepidation that the “feel good” image is window dressing and not reality inside or outside their club.
This is extraordinary when we consider that among these sports various types of libertines and reprobates assemble.
There is tolerance and acceptance of characters charged with all manner of misdemeanors, be they physical assault of males or females, theft, driving offences, drug associations and even sexual offences.
It is absurd that within this company the presence of a gay man in the showers would somehow be more than such a collective could cope with.
It is also ludicrous to think that sponsors and supporters would not support a gay athlete when they support others even when found guilty of offences that damage their brand.
The gay athlete may also be silent because he is concerned about financial ramifications.
In the USA Michael Sam recently became the first openly gay athlete to drafted by the NFL.
Before self-outing, Sam was considered a likely third-round selection where earnings are around $650,000 US per year. On draft day he was a seventh-round selection where his remuneration is US$230,000 per season.
Australian professionals are well paid. Athletes are chosen young with the ability to be set up for life. In the AFL draft early selections are financially rewarded significantly better than later picks.
These apprehensions can be overcome. It will not happen in isolation. It will take collective strength.
The real reason Michael Sam was drafted was because he never stood alone in his quest to be respected for his ability and not his sexuality.
He was surrounded by a community genuine in its desire to judge him as a footballer first and foremost. As his new coach Jeff Fisher said “in the end it came down to the fact he is a great player. The rest is irrelevant”.
It will take individual courage from someone initially. Of course any “first” receives extreme attention, extra scrutiny and perhaps additional ridicule, just as NRL tough guy Ian Roberts did in 1995. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a one-off.
Next time, one hopes, it will be different. After the first, the next won’t receive as much, nor the one after.
In Australia, we need sport to reflect society in all its guises. We need the perception to be tested. Only then can we say we are truly tolerant of people’s right to be true to themselves.
As Michael Sam heard the draft news he embraced in a passionate kiss with his boyfriend (see the video below). They are a gay interracial couple whose public delight was accepted in the USA by the vast majority.
Interestingly, when Sam Newman questioned the kiss on The Footy Show, the audience was not on his side.
Change comes sooner than we think.
Brian Waldron is the former CEO of St Kilda, Melbourne Storm and the Melbourne Rebels.