On Wednesday in Australia, five different sporting leagues announced that they would sign a commitment on to conduct rules designed to end homophobia in their respective sports. The wildly popular Australian Football League (AFL), the National Rugby League (NRL), the Football Federation Australia (FFA), the Australian Rugby Union (ARU), and Cricket Australia have all been brought together by organizers of the Bingham Cup in order to take a stand against discrimination. Because of the unique role sports play in life down under, this is a big move for the sporting culture that the people involved hope will have lasting and wide-ranging effects for equality and tolerance. Having Australian sport, one of the most potently “blokey” sporting cultures in the world, come out to end homophobia is a big step for the country of the fair go and for the world.
The Bingham Cup is commonly known as the “Gay Rugby World Cup.” It is named after Mark Bingham who was instrumental in creating two premier gay rugby clubs and has been in held all over the world and for the first time in Australia this year. American audiences might know him better, however, as one of the heroes of 9/11 who helped crash a hijacked plane in a Philadelphia field, thereby preventing any more loss of life than was already accomplished on that tragic day. His name is one of the many at the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Undoubtedly, Bingham was an American hero, but as a gay man he was also an advocate for equality in sport, as evidenced by his impact on the sport of rugby. The Bingham Cup is part of the commemoration of this fine man and part of his lasting legacy on LGBT equality and will be held in Sydney, Australia in August 2014.
The organizers of the cup may have played a key role in the genesis of this commitment, but the willing support of the sport leagues involved is of great important. The CEOs of the leagues were more than willing to sign the commitment and work cooperatively together on the issue, despite the natural competition for viewers and fans that often goes on between them. The CEO of the AFL, Andrew Demetriou said that his league was committed to a level playing field for everyone to compete on without worrying about discrimination or abuse. Other forms of vilification have already been banned by AFL regulations and the expansion of that ban to LGBT issues is part of that league’s commitment to equality for all its players.
Historically, however, the AFL has not been the most welcoming place for gay players. To date, there have been no openly gay AFL players, despite the claims that they do exist. One person claimed to have had a long running relationship with one player that ended in large part because of the atmosphere of homophobia and the fear of the player that if his orientation was found out he would be harassed. James Saunders, the Sydney Convicts captain, said that in his opinion the support for gay players has not existed in the AFL and that has contributed to the absence of any out players. Now that Australian sport has come out against homophobia, that is no guarantee that it will end in the AFL, though it can be a hope.
The commitment signed by the CEOs may or may not be enough to change that situation for the AFL, but for the other leagues, there has been at least a little more openness on issues of sexual orientation. Former NRL rugby player Ian Roberts came out as gay in the early 1990s. He had a successful career in sport and went on to have a successful career in acting after he retired. The former Australian rugby star is probably best known to Americans for the character of Riley from 2005s Superman Returns. Roberts has emphasized authenticity in his life story, stating to the television program Australian Story that everyone can respect honesty and truth and, in the end, those are more important than being gay.
Honesty is definitely one of the things that will be more possible after this commitment to end homophobia for sport in Australia goes into effect and there could very well be more players who come out as gay because of it. Openness is the ultimate goal for these leagues and providing a supportive environment not only for players, but for fans as well. In Australia, a series of anti-homophobia ads featuring AFL players will air on national television starting this year. That kind of open support might just be what it takes to change the culture beyond sports. This is a first-of-its-kind deal for world sports and for Australian sport, meaning that it is just possible that other national leagues in different countries will follow suit.
The issue of gay athletes is not restricted to sports in Australia. In the United States, there have been a host of gay athletes playing at high levels who have come out and created more awareness. Johnny Weir and Megan Rapinoe are two athletes who have represented the United States at the Olympics. Weir is equally famous for his flamboyant costumes as well as his skill in ice skating. Rapinoe played soccer for the United States Olympic women’s team, which won gold in the last summer Olympics. Most recently, Michael Sam has created controversy in the National Football League for going in to the upcoming draft as an openly gay man. If the hardcore football in Australia, commonly known as rugby in the United States, can have room for equality for gay players, then that provides an example for the hard-hitting NFL, which enjoys huge popularity in America.
While there is no sign that any other nations’ sports leagues will be following in their footsteps, the AFL, NRL, FFA, ARU, and Cricket Australia have set a precedent for the world. The organizers of the Bingham Cup have found a fitting tribute to Mark Bingham in bringing together these popular Australian leagues for the cause of equality. It is also a good thing for Australia to be seen leading the world on the issue of LGBT equality in sport. In the meantime, Australian sport leagues coming out to end homophobia within their own codes is a step forward LGBT equality over the world, if only the first step in a long journey.
Commentary By Lydia Webb