Due to work commitments, I've been pretty much off the grid all day, so I was somewhat surprised when I checked my Twitter feed at lunch time to see all the brouhaha caused by Jason Akermanis and his column about gays coming out in the AFL in today's Daily Telegraph.
And I know what I'm about to say is not going to be viewed favourably by a great many people. But that's okay, because as we all know, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.
I was surprised by the vehemence and derision directed at him.
Now I haven't read any of the articles where other people started denouncing him, and I didn't watch the piece on the 7pm Project, but I did read the article first thing this morning, and you know what... he's probably right.
I am wondering how many of the people who reacted to the story actually read his column, or if they just read the articles ABOUT the column and jumped to massive conclusions or whether they read the article with their minds already made up and only saw what they perceived as negative comments.
And just because something is negative and isn't the way that we would like the world to be, that doesn't mean it's not true...
I can't claim to be any kind of expert about AFL, but I would imagine, for the purposes of this discussion that Jason has a required level of knowledge.
He's probably been playing AFL for over half of his life and by his own admission has played with a out gay player, who, according to him "was a great guy who played his heart out and was respected by everyone in the team".
And while he admits to being uncomfortable showering with the guy he also says:
"What I should have done was to sit down and talk with him in an attempt to understand his life."
And maybe if he had the situation to do over again, that's exactly what he would do.
He goes on to mention IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) and the prevalence of suicide amongst gay teens, topics which a football audience may not be aware of.
But some of the comments I've read have been reacting strongly to his use of a few phrases...
Firstly, that a gay player "could break the fabric of a club"... again, while it's strong language, I don't think he's necessarily wrong. And if not break, then perhaps "severely distort".
News of a current AFL player coming out would be news around the world (not the whole world maybe, but I think it would get a mention in a lot of places)...
Now think about the reactions of fans and supporters to Nick Riewoldt crying during a game, or Wayne Carey sleeping with his team mate's wife. These things were punchlines for months and months afterwards, and I'm sure the players in question, if not their whole teams, were heckled by crowds at the time.
Now imagine if those same AFL fans found out that one of their team was "a big poof". Think about the signs they'd be holding up, think about the jeers and taunts they'd scream out, and hope like hell they wouldn't be able to bring in things to throw.
Now think about what that would do to the player. And to his team mates. I would imagine that sometimes it's hard enough to struggle through if you're losing and being jeered from the sidelines... but when the attacks are personal and not related to your performance on the field? And of course, if the team lost a game, it would be, in the minds of many of the crowd, "because of the poof".
Why would anybody sign up for that? Most gay men have had the experience of a car full of yobbos driving past and screaming "faggots" or the like from a car window. Now imagine that it's not four guys in a Corolla... it's 80,000 people, and they're screaming it at you while you're at work.
Would you want to put up with that? Would you expect a current AFL player to have to put up with that? And why would you want to do that to another human being?
People get nuts about AFL... I don't understand why, but I know that they do. And there is a portion of football fandom that isn't the most enlightened of individuals.
So as Jason says, "try being the first AFL player to come out. That is too big a burden for any player".
And yes, while a lot of it would be external homophobia, I'm sure there would also be a fair share of internal homophobia perhaps less from team mates, but perhaps from old members of the football establishment.
But it's not like AFL players are the souls of tact and discretion and restraint... the number of times we already hear about players getting drunk and behaving badly, or drunk fans taking a crack at a player. And no matter what the clubs say or do, these things appear to keep happening.
Now add an out gay player to that mix. Even if the team was supportive, they'd be essentially thrust into the position of having to "defend the honour of their team mate" from every drunk yahoo with a bad attitude.
But I think a team that's totally supportive is a best case scenario... these clubs are filled with very young men often-times fresh from the country or at least living at home, and suddenly they're being treated like gods, they have freedom and access to vice of various descriptions and have been inducted into a giant boys club.
Now tell me that that isn't a breeding ground for homophobia.
So yes, I don't doubt that "it would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay". I'm in no way saying that it's right. But it exists, and no amount of denying it will change that.
Which is why I believe that Jason has a point. I wish he didn't... but he does.
I do disagree with two portions of his column thought...
Firstly, I think these two statements are perhaps mutually exclusive...
"We have made massive steps in other areas of society and in time I hope the environment changes to a degree where coming out isn't a big deal."
"Young people from the ages 15-24 are the main participants in organised sport in Victoria. Some of them must be gay and I hope they thoroughly enjoy their sporting lives without having to experience any form of prejudice. But if they are thinking of telling the world, my advice would be forget it."
I think that it is the young people who are participating in organised sport who could come out and who could start to create the change he talks about in the first quote. Obviously if they're in a highly homophobic location, then they should think of their own safety first.
But I also think that the AFL probably needs to take a long had look at itself as regards the vilification of people based on sexual orientation. And treat it in exactly the same way as what happens with racial vilification, crack down on it and crack down hard.
The second portion is the sentence that opens his column...
"Two former AFL players are rumoured to have been offered $150,000 to be the first to publicly come out as gay."
Beyond the fact that I think it's incredibly stupid to have to pay someone to come out, although I understand that's probably more about exclusive rights to the story from media outlets and the like, I think that a former AFL player is the perfect person to come out. Or someone who is planing to retire anyway kills two birds with one stone and announces both things.
Or just someone who retired a while back but wants to get their name back in the paper... it did wonders for Daniel Kowalski (and is it just me, or is there some inherent hypocrisy in Daniel slamming Jason's comments when he himself didn't come out until way, way, way after his career was done... if fact, about the only person who could comment and not sound like a hypocrite would be Matthew Mitcham).
In reality though, I think the only other way for a gay AFL player to come out is right after they've won the grand final... but that only lasts until the beginning of the next season anyway.
I also think that all this condemnation was the wrong reaction... why has nobody "famous" from the gay community offered him the proverbial olive branch and said "You've raised this issue, what do you see as the best way forward?". Maybe he doesn't have those answers, I'd be surprised if he did... but instead of considering what he's raised and what we all, as Australians (or indeed, just the gay community for that matter) can do to begin to combat this issue everyone just calls him a brainless idiot and turned him into the punchline of jokes of varying quality.
So, for the record... Jason, I think you make a valid point and I thank you for raising it, although I truly wish the circumstances were different.