One of my favorite factoids about Australian football (AFL) is that it is the only professional sport league with no openly homosexual players. I can’t verify this, and have no way of knowing if it’s true, but I’d believe it. In my opinion Australian football, as an exemplar for ‘traditional” Australian masculine values is representative of a harmful, internalizing and regressive model of masculine expression. And it’s also one that is hugely influential in hegemonic terms.
Jason Akermanis, a footballer with a prominent media profile wrote an opinion piece in the Herald Sun today, (here it is) in which he extolls the importance of gay player remaining closeted for the integrity and general good of the game, and for the individual players.
It’s an interesting article. I’m going to post a few choice passages and unpack them a little bit.
I’ll start off positive, saying that I agree with Akermanis in that gay AFL players are under no obligation to come out, simply because they are high-profile. That’s a personal choice, and if the hypothetical homosexual football player chooses not to come out, that’s totally cool by me. However, Akermanis goes a little bit further;
But I believe the world of AFL footy is not ready for it. To come out is unnecessary for a lot of reasons.
Imagine the publicity associated with a current player admitting he’s gay. It would be international news and could break the fabric of a club.
Well, first of all I’m not sure it would be international news, and I really doubt it would break the fabric of the club. And if it did, to be honest that’s probably a good thing. If a tightly knit bunch of elite male athletes can’t handle one of their own preferring men as partners to women, if this would cause a fundamental breakdown in the sporting esprit d’corps, then it’s a club probably not worth being part of.
But if Akermanis is anything to go by, I might be expecting a little too much out of AFL footballers, something Akermanis puts down to the totally unique work environment of a professional sports team
I believe it would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay.
I have played with a gay player in the twos for Mayne in Queensland in the mid-1990s who was happy to admit his sexual persuasion. He was a great guy who played his heart out and was respected by everyone in the team.
The only time I noticed a difference was when I was showering with 10 other players after a good win and I turned around to see all 10 heading out in a second with their towels. Sure enough, our gay teammate had wandered in.
For some reason I felt uncomfortable, so I left. I am sure most players these days would do the same.
I know he wasn’t about to try to convert me to his way of thinking, but I was uncomfortable all the same
Wow. that’s all kinds of depressing and homophobic. And I can really see why gay footballers aren’t leaping out of their closets if this is the reaction they can expect from their peers. But I also think this is about heterosexual footballers (and lets conflate that to include a great many men) complex and troubled relationship with homosocial environments and ‘homoerotic’ behaviour. Akermanis touches on this;
In an athletic environment the rules are different from the cultural rules for men.
Never in a mall will you see two straight men hugging, a— slapping and jumping around like kids after an important goal.
Locker room nudity and homoerotic activities are normal inside footy clubs.
Well. I’d argue that expressions of intimacy and emotion between men are not, by default, homoerotic. And to claim that is the case is a clear demonstration of the social and cultural regulation of masculinity at work. The above statement is exemplary of how a model of masculinity which prohibits display of homosocial affection or care is created and perpetuated. I would argue that the cultural rules of football, while different, inform, to a large degree, broader cultural norms of masculinity. And to have footballers act in an emotional way with other men in one context and condemn this masculine expression in the next breath, is hugely damaging and hypocritical.
There is NOTHING wrong with men hugging, crying, or what have you. To have prominent male role models act in this way is great, as gatekeepers of masculinity their actions have the potential to normalise a broader range of emotional expression in men. Instead of celebrating this, they isolate their actions to the context of the professional playing field, further internalizing harmful norms and homophobia. I think this hypocrisy is at the heart of the AFL’s issues with homosexual players. To accept openly homosexual players as their own would be to hold a mirror to their own masculine expression and ideology, and cast a perhaps uncomfortable light on their own double standards.
That Akermanis wrote this article is not a casual coincidence, he is taking an active, pre-emptive role at maintaining the cultural walls of a particular hegemonic masculine identity; clearly defining what it is to be a football playing man, and warning any men who may not totally conform to this cultural ideal not to rock the boat.