ELITE athletes from Australia’s biggest sports — including the captain of the reigning NRL Premiership winning team — have declared their commitment to help end homophobia in sport across the country.
At an event held at Sydney’s Bondi Beach yesterday, players from netball, Aussie rules, rugby union, rugby league and soccer came together to call out homophobia in sport and to join the Rainbow Round of Sport that begins today and ends April 4.
The athletes are part of the #RainbowLaces campaign spearheaded by the newly-launched Pride in Sport index and sportswear company Skins.
A 2014 report showed within Australia 80 per cent of more than 3000 respondents had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport, and 70 per cent believed youth team sports were not safe and supportive for LGBTI people.
Dylan Shiel, a player for the Greater Western Sydney Giants, said he knew of gay players in AFL, but because of societal pressures they were afraid to come out.
“They don’t come out because obviously they’re uncomfortable and they’re not at fault, it’s the environment they’re in,” he said.
“The AFL needs to improve, like all other codes and making it more comfortable for players to come out and express their feelings.
“I think the AFL being such a big code in this country we can have a massive impact.”
Shiel told Star Observer he had friends he played football with at the junior level who came out as adults.
“They did that (coming out) after they finished playing football and obviously they didn’t feel comfortable coming out while they were playing,” he said.
“The issue with local football and local sporting organisations is the spectators as well, they don’t know the impact their words can have on other spectators and other players… we need to really educate not only from the top of professional sporting organisations, but down all the way to local and junior to educate of the impact words can have on people.”
Former Olympian Daniel Kowalski, who hosted the launch event, said as a gay swimmer he was very proud to see such huge support for the #RainbowLaces initiative.
“The athletes here are not obligated under contract to be here. They’re here because they believe in what we do,” he said.
Alongside Shiel, other #RainbowLaces ambassadors in attendance at yesterday’s event were netballer Sharni Layton, rugby union player Matt Toomua, rugby league player Nathan Peats, and soccer stars Max Burgess and Michelle Heyman.
Layton said she felt sick at the statistics of people affected by homophobia and wondered how much talent the sport world was losing from those too afraid to participate because of their sexuality.
“It’s great we’ve started this movement, but if we’ve still got a long way to go,” she said.
“Sport has a really silent culture of homophobia and silence is agreement. I believe if we stand up and say something… we can actually shut that down.
“I’m here for my sport to say ‘enough is enough’, let’s create an environment where people can be themselves and play sport no matter who they are or what they do… if we can continue to build in this space it will have a ripple effect through society.”
North Queensland Cowboys’ captain Johnathan Thurston is also a #RainbowLaces ambassador.
“How can someone change who they are… imagine all the talent we’ve lost to homophobia,” he said via video message.
Skins executive chairman Jaimie Fuller said he had written to every federal and state politician in Australia asking them to get behind #RainbowLaces and to support anti-homophobia messages in sport.
“Sport reflects society and as leaders in society we expectations (of politicians) to put their ‘laces’, where their mouths are,” he said.