If you were to read today’s headlines, the AFL has gone out on a limb to be the only sporting organisation to promote a Yes vote in the marriage equality postal survey.

The reaction from the AFL’s community, politicians and the dregs on Facebook have been swift and harsh. But the truth is that while the AFL has been a leader on the issue of sexuality, through its Pride games, it is only one of many sporting bodies to back the Yes vote, and has, more than a week after its peers, have already made their stance clear.

So how has the sporting community reacted to the postal survey in the past two weeks?

Cricket Australia announced on September 11 that it was backing marriage equality, posting a rainbow logo to social media. CEO James Sutherland said in a statement: “There is still progress to be made across sport, and while cricket can always be doing more to support the LGBTI community, we hope that supporting marriage equality will send a strong message to the cricket community across Australia that we are a Sport For All.”

The reaction was muted — there was no photo shoot with players (the Australian men’s team is in India) and no players or commentators slammed the move.

The NRL also came out in support of the Yes campaign at the same time as Cricket Australia — long before the AFL. The face of the NRL’s stance was former player Ian Roberts. Roberts’ letter to NRL boss Todd Greenberg was reported by the Daily Telegraph‘s senior rugby league columnist Phil “Buzz” Rothfield thus:

“IN his NRL playing days Ian Roberts was the toughest and most fearless forward of his era.

On Friday afternoon he broke down and cried.

A telephone call from the NRL confirmed the code would publicly support the same sex marriage campaign as Australians prepare to vote.”

 

The Football Federation of Australia put its support behind the campaign on September 13; CEO David Gallop posed with Matildas player Michelle Heyman in front of a marriage equality sign. Again, the reaction was not the same. Netball Australia, the Australian Rugby Union and the National Basketball League have all pledged their support as well.

What’s the context of the AFL’s support for marriage equality?

The first reporting of the AFL’s stance on Wednesday came as AFL staff tweeted photos of the Yes sign replacing the AFL logo out the front of the league’s Docklands headquarters. Reporters were invited to a photo shoot with prominent men’s and women’s players, coaches and officials, and the league announced that balls reading “Yes” would be sent to clubs and local leagues this weekend.

No AFL player has ever come out as gay, either current or former. Advocate Jason Ball played local footy and came out in 2012, providing the catalyst for the AFL’s response to the issue. Both last year and this year, St Kilda and Sydney have played in the Pride game, the AFL Players’ Association supports changing the law, and many players have made their personal views known. The introduction of the AFLW competition this year has meant that stories of players and their relationships also became public. So the announcement by the league was in no way a surprise. But the reaction in the 48 hours since has been fever-pitch.

And finally, the man whose nickname is “fossil”, Sam Newman, went on a four minute rant on The Footy Show last night, calling the league “obsequious, fawning, sycophantic political whores”.

“But who in the hell are these people at the AFL who are telling the football public what they should do in their lives and who they should vote for in any political agenda. Who are you?”

The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Neil Mitchell on 3AW this morning:

“Well it is a matter for them. It is their choice. I mean, I’m not going to tell the AFL or any other organisation how to run their affairs. I mean they’re entitled to express a point of view.

“The AFL has always had a, and you would understand this better than me being in Melbourne, but the AFL has always had a very forward leaning approach on social issues, you know, whether it is multiculturalism, whether it is reconciliation, whether it is ensuring that we have the whole Dreamtime at the ‘G’ – all of the initiatives they have taken, they have been a very socially progressive organisation and they’ve taken a strong stand on the same-sex marriage issue for a long time.”

The NRL Footy Show‘s Erin Molan also said on Mark Latham’s Outsiders that sport and politics shouldn’t mix: “It doesn’t do the cause any good, it’s an individual thing.”

Politicians Zed Seselja and Eric Abetz have criticised the stance as has commentator Andrew Bolt. So why is the reaction to the AFL different?

Peter Fray

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