Tackling the problem of homophobia in the AFL – what is the solution?

Published by Jon Holmes on

LGBTQ+ people and allies who love Aussie Rules are again seeing headlines about anti-gay slurs in the sport; Clarkson, Finlayson, Powell… who will be next? And what should the AFL be doing, beyond handing down punishments?; Poletti puts league chiefs, players and the media under the microscope…

By Poletti

Port Adelaide’s Jeremy Finlayson, who was suspended for three matches for using a homophobic slur in Round Four, in action against Essendon during that match (image: Dani Brown / Fleurieu Sun)

Before Round Nine of the 2024 AFL competition had started, there were already sanctions levied against three people involved in the competition for homophobic behaviour.

North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson received an AUS $20,000 fine and a suspended two-match ban, while two players – Port Adelaide’s Jeremy Finlayson and Gold Coast Suns’ Wil Powell – three and five-match bans respectively.

The increase in punishments as the season has gone on with each additional incident shows that the AFL is prepared to come down harsher on players as a deterrent.

AFL general counsel Stephen Meade said it is “extremely disappointing” to be dealing with a similar incident in a matter of weeks, with the one involving Powell coming a month after Finlayson’s.

He also went on to say that homophobia has no place in our game, nor in society.

“We want all people in the community to feel welcomed in our game and comments such as Powell’s only takes away from this. As a code, as a community, we all must be better.”

But what does being better look like?

It is all fine to say that “we all must be better”, but there needs to be actions to back those words up.

Pride Cup CEO Hayley Conway said that sanctions alone will not stop players from making homophobic slurs.

“Just like a fine doesn’t prevent every driver from speeding, sanctions won’t stop coaches, players, and fans from using LGBTIQ+ identities as an insult,” Conway said.

“That these on-field actions are being reported shows that a decade of campaigns to end homophobia in sport are having real impact. It also shows just how common homophobic banter is.

“These words have real impact. Only 20% of LGB youth are ‘fully out’ to their sport teams, and those who are out are more likely to experience homophobic abuse.

“Young women are still dropping out of sport for fear of being targeted as a lesbian. These figures are unacceptably high, and out of step with broader society. LGBTIQ+ youth have a 6 x higher suicide rate than their straight peers.

“We welcome the AFL’s statement of commitment to ‘increase the current yearly education programs regarding vilification that all AFL and AFLW players undertake’, and look forward to seeing the practical detail.”

Stand up, speak out

Keeping those comments and figures in mind, the AFL (and sport more broadly) has a long way to go, but what is seen with these types of incidents, is that it flows from the top down.

Kids playing sports always love to try and emulate their heroes on and off the field, and so if they see their favourite player doing something, they think it is OK for them to do it as well.

If you can show at the top level that this behaviour is not OK, there will hopefully be that flow-on impact all the way down to the grassroots level and the fans in the stands.

Being better requires everyone to understand that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable and it means taking active steps to no longer engage in it. It requires you to pull your friends up when they engage in it so that they know it is unacceptable.

It requires players standing up and speaking out whenever they hear or see something.

Does the media have a role to play?

While the media needs to report the news and encourage discussion around topics in the game, how it goes about doing that has a significant impact in how these messages are received.

If you break down a lot of the talk shows, whether on TV or radio, they are overwhelmingly panelled by straight men, who are usually of an older age bracket, even with ex-players involved.

What you do not tend to see or hear are people who have lived experiences in dealing with the subject matter at hand, detailing the impact it actually has, whether they be a former player or an expert in the subject matter.

Other times, even if they do engage with a former player or an expert to discuss these incidents, it is a one-segment discussion, before the show moves on to the next segment and it becomes forgotten about in the broader scheme, especially if that next segment is light-hearted and humour-filled.

Being better means treating the topic with the seriousness it deserves, and not looking at it as an obligation of needing to do it before moving on and then forgetting about it until the next time an incident occurs.

What is the overarching solution?

All of the incidents this season took place in a game setting, where there were cameras, microphones, umpires, and a viewing audience.

But what happens behind the scenes, when none of the above is around?

It then comes down to changing the culture that has allowed this behaviour to fester and take place to achieve the solution.

It requires individuals to stand up and call it out.

It requires clubs to stand up and call it out.

It requires all of us, whether we are fans, journalists, commentators, or administrators within the game to call it out and let it be known this behaviour is unacceptable, because behavioural changes are the only way we can begin to stamp it out.

If we fail to change our behaviours, you can have all the sanctions levied against players and talk show discussions and opinion columns that you want, but is it really going to make a difference if the root causes are not addressed?

Follow Poletti on X / Twitter at @ItsPoletti and read about their journey in sports media here.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor