POLITICS

How Australian Sport Is Supporting Marriage Equality

Rugby league, union, AFL, cricket, soccer and more are backing the push.

19/09/2017 9:21 AM AEST | Updated 19/09/2017 11:59 AM AEST
Fairfax Media
St Kilda City players before the Pride Round match on August 12.

Big business, tech giants and the entertainment community have already pledged their support, and now Australia's biggest sporting codes are throwing their weight behind the push for marriage equality in Australia.

In recent weeks, some of our most popular sporting organisations have added their voices to the debate as Australia endures a postal survey on the right for same-sex couples to marry.

The Australian Football League has been a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, and recently it has been the National Rugby League, Cricket Australia and the Australian Rugby Union pledging their support for the movement.

Australian sport has had a chequered and sometimes ugly past concerning homophobia in sport -- a notable recent example being swimmer Stephanie Rice calling the South African rugby team 'faggots' in 2010 -- but the big codes are throwing their institutional weight behind the marriage equality push.

Last weekend, NRL boss Todd Greenberg penned a letter announcing his code was on board with the push. The missive came in reply to former player Ian Roberts, a forward with South Sydney, Manly and North Queensland during the 1990s who is recognised as one of the first major Australian sportspeople to come out as gay. Roberts has been a campaigner for LGBTQ issues since coming out in the mid-90s, and asked his former code not to "miss this moment in history" to support marriage equality.

"One of the key pillars of rugby league is inclusiveness -- and the game has a duty to back up its policy with action," Greenberg replied.

"There is a place for everyone in rugby league. It might be as a junior, as a volunteer, as a match official or as an NRL player. And we need to treat everyone equally both on and off the field and that's why we will publicly support the same-sex marriage proposal."

Roberts told Fairfax Media he was "had tears in my eyes" from the response.

"This isn't just about marriage. It's about saving lives and telling young people that they are OK. There is nothing wrong with them. Rugby league has the power to do that because so many people watch it and love it and I'm proud that Todd and the league have taken this step," he said.​

The AFL has been a longer-term supporter of the long-overdue reform, with CEO Gillon McLachlan pledging his code's support as early as 2014.

"The AFL will keep saying no matter how many times it takes, that our game does not tolerate discrimination in any form, be that sexual identity, gender, race (or) religious views ... we also support the position of marriage equality for all people," he wrote in his own letter to a letter from a mother of a gay son.

"This matter is a serious issue for many young gay people, in terms of how they are treated in the wider community, and football leaders such as myself will continue to say that we do not tolerate it, and will continue to push for a change in behaviour from all sections of society."

Aussie Rules has done more than most codes to tangibly support the gay community, an annual 'pride match' between Sydney and St Kilda the most visible example.

Jerseys, playing strips and field markings are daubed in rainbow colours, and the initiative has been credited with making LGBTQ people feel more comfortable at footy games. Interviews with almost 700 queer fans before the 2016 match found almost half thought AFL games were not a safe place for LGBTQ people, but many opinions changed following the match.

However, AFL -- as with other codes -- still has its problems with discrimination and marginalisation of LGBTQ people. Research from 2015 -- the Out On The Fields study -- found 80 percent of Australian respondents thought LGBTQ people were not accepted in the sporting community, nine in 10 young people said they felt they could not be honest about their sexuality because of fears of discrimination from coaches and officials, while 80 percent of Australian respondents said they had experienced or witnessed homophobia in sport.

Jason Ball, a defender for Yarra Glen in the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League, became the first openly gay Aussie Rules player at any level in 2012 when he publicly announced his sexuality. Ball has since become something of a standard-bearer for the issue in sports, and told HuffPost Australia in 2015 that many Australian sports have not made sufficient in-roads to making gay players feel comfortable and secure.

"When I came out, I felt silly for thinking I had to hide it for so long... Without hearing messages of support from the people around you or people who make decisions in your club, you can fear the worst," Ball said in 2015.

Football Federation Australia are on board too.

"FFA is a founding member of Pride in Sport and supports its charter including marriage equality," an FFA spokesperson told SBS.

"Everyone is welcome to be a part of the football community, regardless of their age, gender, sexual preference, ability or beliefs.

"David Gallop, CEO of FFA, was one of the first CEOs in the country to publicly support same-sex marriage over two years ago."

The Australian Rugby Union has also pledged its support, and indeed just hosted the Purchas Cup in Victoria, including gay rugby teams from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, New Zealand and further afield.

Cricket Australia recently announced its support for marriage equality too, becoming a signatory to Australian Marriage Equality. Cricket Australia said its decision was "in keeping with its vision to be a sport for all Australians".

"Cricket must be a welcoming environment for each and every one of us, regardless of gender, cultural heritage and -- importantly in the current environment -- sexuality," said CEO James Sutherland.

"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."

Netball Australia and the National Basketball Australia have voiced their support for marriage equality as well.

The Australian Olympic Committee told HuffPost Australia in a statement it "respects diversity" but stopped short of an explicit statement of support for marriage equality.

"As a National Olympic Committee, we are guided by and uphold the Olympic Charter and fundamental principles of Olympism. Amongst other things the principles require every individual having the possibility to practise sport without discrimination of any kind including race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion," an AOC spokeswoman said.

"Based on this the AOC respects diversity and supports raising awareness of discrimination of any kind. The Committee therefore asks all parties to this debate to do so with respect and understanding."

AOC boss Matt Carroll later told Fairfax "there are two sides to this discussion and I'm respecting both sides of this discussion. People's religious views are important and they should be respected".

Of course, support across all codes is not uniform. Wallabies star Israel Folau created something of a storm when he posted his thoughts on Twitter last week, saying "I will not support gay marriage". As HuffPost Australia's Ant Sharwood reported, other Aussie sporting stars quickly responded to Folau's tweet. His Wallabies team-mate David Pocock clapped back within a few hours, while cricketer Shane Watson also dropped into the debate.

The marriage equality survey is still ongoing. If you've received your paperwork already, make sure to fill it in and send it back quickly. If you haven't received yours yet, keep a lookout and return it quickly.

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