AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou signed a commitment in 2014 to “eradicate homophobia” and to “create an inclusive culture” where gay players feel safe to come out.
Securing his commitment, conducting this Out on the Fields study, and building this website were all part of a series of intiatives driven by LGBTQ+ leaders focused on ending harm to children from homophobia in sport.
Ten years since that commitment was signed... the Australian Football League remains the only major sport in the world to have never had a male player come out as gay or bisexual (current or retired).
For comparison, multiple men have come out in sports such as soccer, rugby union/league, and cricket. Remarkably, over a dozen NFL (American football) players have come out as gay or bisexual since 1975.
The constant use of homophobic language by coaches and teammates is a key factor in why AFL players hide their sexuality.
Researchers have found homophobic language is used constantly at all levels of AFL … from junior football to elite levels. The language is also used by fans. Below is a snapshot of research:
- 73% of teenage Aussie Rules (amateur AFL) players (males aged 16 – 20) reported hearing their teammates use homophobic slurs (e.g. fag) in the past month
- 62% of LGBTQ+ fans have witnessed verbal homophobia or transphobia at an AFL game
It’s critical to highlight: when the AFL signed the commitment in 2014, it accepted that these behaviours are common in the sport and they need to be stopped. There is no debate that there is a problem, this has been accepted by sport leaders in Australia and internationally (including by the IOC in a scientific concensus statement). Those who are new to this topic should read the IOC’s concensus statement.
Why does homophobic language matter?
The constant use of homophobic language causes gay and bisexual boys and men to hide their sexuality and/or stop playing a sport.
Researchers have found gay boys play sports at half the rate of straight boys. This helps to explain the lack of openly gay and bisexual professional AFL players.
Few people know that homophobic language is harmful to the mental health of all boys, regardless of whether they are gay or heterosexual. Researchers have found being the target of homophobic slurs increases the likelihood that all boys will self-harm or attempt suicide.
Homophobic language is particularly harmful for gay kids. Australian research has found gay kids who have been the target of homophobic slurs report self-harming at twice the rate of those who have not been the target of this behaviour (33% vs. 18%). Other research by beyondblue found just hearing homophobic language being used in sport increases the risk that LGBTQ+ kids will attempt suicide.
How does the AFL compare to other sports?
As our timeline illustrates, leaders of four other sport governing bodies signed the same commitment as the AFL’s CEO, in 2014, to “eradicate” homophobia: Rugby Australia, Cricket Australia, Football Australia, and National Rugby League.
Recent research led by Dr. Ryan Storr, and by others, has found none of the sports have fulfilled their commitments, with homophobic behaviours common in all sports. However, unlike the AFL (and its state governing bodies), as this report outlines, other sports have made investments in solving this problem and they have been working with scientists and LGBTQ+ organisations to find solutions. Some examples are below.
CASE STUDY: CRICKET
Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria have worked with scientists since 2016 conducting studies examining homophobic behaviours in the sport. They have co-developed programs, resources, and new policies designed to foster a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ players and fans. The sport has also provided funding and worked closely with LGBTQ+ charities.
CASE STUDY: RUGBY UNION
Rugby Australia and Rugby Victoria have worked with scientists since 2017 to conduct award-winning research to understand the drivers of homophobic behaviours. They have developed and tested the effectiveness of multiple programs designed to change these behaviours involving education delivered by professional athletes, and tested the effectiveness of combining pride games with a unique peer education program called “Captaining Inclusion.”
What should the AFL do now?
The AFL has a legal and moral obligation to keep the commitment it signed in 2014 to “eradicate” homophobia. As the wealthiest sport in Australia, the AFL has the capability to make major investments in solving this problem.
The AFL should build on the research conducted by smaller sports (e.g., Australian rugby union) and should begin working with scientists to co-develop and test new evidence-based approaches to stop the pervasive use of homophobic language in the sport.
It could focus on studying Pride Cups (Games), a very popular initiative pioneered by community Aussie Rules clubs, including by Yarra Glen Football Netball Club, in rural Victoria.
Two studies have found hosting pride games appears to have a powerful impact on the use of homophobic language by players. Public health experts have called for a large-scale study to confirm the effectiveness of hosting pride games in tandem with peer education delivered by captains.
Conclusion from Out on the Fields: The AFL could make a major contribution to global efforts to end homophobia in sport by funding and then actively supporting a high-quality, large-scale study evaluating the effectiveness of pride games and peer-to-peer education in youth sport.