It’s a question that asked every week on my favourite sports show – The Outer Sanctum – How is your relationship with footy right now? For me, it’s an especially tricky life question, laced with bullying and bigotry on multiple fronts. But big change is on the way.
I was a pretty scrawny kid – all legs and arms – not especially co-ordinated nor confident in my body.
Growing up in a sporting family, in the country where sport ruled – it was definitely a case of wrong place, wrong time for me – I just didn’t fit in at all.
Me – I was enthralled by pop music, camp, glam pop music. My bedroom was adorned with posters of Abba, Sherbet (in their ultra-camp satin outfits), Young Talent Time, and an assortment of male hearthrobs. To add to that, I dreamed of being a ballet dancer – much to the chagrin of some in my family.
BUT then there was Sunday – and my weekly ritual. Right after Church, we’d stop and get the sports newspapers so I could read about my beloved Hawthorn Footy Club (unless they lost!!) and collect the statistics on every player in the team.
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED footy stats. Each week I’d get out my battered exercise book devoted to the Hawks. I’d fill out the latest kick, handballs, marks, and goal count for each player. I was fanatical about it – never missing a week.
But take me to a local footy game – NO WAY.
Ovals weren’t happy places for me – they were reminders of bullying and humiliation – places that I wasn’t welcome or accepted as myself.
If it wasn’t the embarrassment of being picked last, the nasty comments or knocks on the field, it was the agony of time spent on the field – praying that the ball wouldn’t come to me – or furiously scurrying around so that I was no-where near the ball. I mean who wants to participate when doing so leads to ridicule or abuse well beyond the game itself.
Luckily there were some lifesaving teachers who created safe spaces for kids like me – away from the sporting fields.
There was our gloriously whacky, ultra colourful and imaginative prep teacher who invited me into her classroom to help. There was an English teacher and a Maths teacher who set up guitar classes for us.
Here, in these refuges I could just be me – no hiding, no pretence, no violence. Respite just for a brief period in my week.
And then there was one special PE teacher who believed in me and encouraged me – much to my ever-present shock – so familiar was I to put downs, abuse and humiliation in PE and sports classes.
- How I wish I could meet him again – to thank him for being that stark contrast to brutality. For showing me, that there could be a place for me in sport at school – for daring to speak up for me – even if he was one of the few voices in that regard.
Still I continued to love the Hawks Footy Club and compiled my stats. How could I not – they were one of the most successful clubs of my childhood (and continue to be so today).
But I never really felt part of that world. Nor did I see people like me (that I knew of) there .
Fast forward a few years – and I’m still a mad keen Hawks supporter. I watch everything I can about the Hawks but it’s a tricky relationship.
Racism, homophobia, sexism (and probably a few other isms) from the old, white straight guard – in the footy world – continue to pepper the landscape.
To even dare to challenge such bigotry (and violence) potentially leaves one open to relentless vile abuse and threats.
To speak up for an inclusive footy code – has others claiming political correctness is ruining our beloved AFL football.
Till recently, I’d rarely been to an AFL game because of the racist, sexist, homophobic and other nasty sentiments regularly expressed by tanked up sections of the footy crowd.
The tide is turning though – on multiple fronts – and it’s changing my relationship to footy.
Now there are more sports journalists (especially a number of female journalists) who dare to challenge the business as usual – calling out bigotry and shining a greater light on diversity within the AFL.
Of course the old guard is still there hectoring, being nasty and insensitive but it doesn’t have the floor to itself anymore.
Social media provides us with access to many more diverse voices . It provides us with the tools to amplify (or share) more inclusive viewpoints about the game that we love.
And thanks to community activists and advocates on multiple fronts – we finally have some acknowledgement – a hand held out to us:
- with the Indigenous Footy Round,
- the Pink Lady (Breast Cancer) Match,
- the AFL’s National Women’s competition (AT LAST),
- and most recently the Pride Game – for GLBTI supporters, their friends and families.
As a gay male who has felt excluded and brutalised by footy, it’s traditional gatekeepers, and bigoted fans and players – I was a cauldron of emotion at the Sydney Swans versus Saints Pride Game.
Leading up to the game there was such excitement within the queer community online.
- GLBTI people coming back to AFL footy after years away.
- Rainbow Families feeling more comfortable bringing their kids to a more inclusive sporting space.
- An explosion of powerful, inspired writing about the Pride Game and why it was so important.
- Connections being made between racism and homophobia as AFL Legend Nicky Winmar reunited with his gay son, Tynan.
And then there was the GAME
Rainbow scarves and hats galore, video stories of inclusion and acceptance playing on all the screens, and a sea of hyped up supporters.
It feels so delightfully odd to be part of such acceptance and welcome in a footy ground – with my people and our allies.
Then we’re plunged into darkness, the oh so familiar opening strains of True Colors begin.
A band of pulsating rainbow colors circles the stadium, and the cast of Kinky Boots sing as only they can.
I can’t believe how overcome I feel (plus a little teary)
‘This is SO good,’ I say to Simon.
I go to grab Simon’s hand, and there’s that split section – Is it Safe question that always runs through my head in public spaces.
Here though for the first time – at a AFL footy game, surrounded by other queer people and allies, I finally feel safe to reach out and hold my love’s hand.
But as I do, I can’t help but wonder about the queer AFL players.We still have no one who is OPEN or OUT about being gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex in the male competition – at a national level.
- It’s too be hoped that it’ll be quite different with the soon-to-be national women’s league.
How can I have a truly happy and healthy relationship with footy – when I don’t see queer people like me – open and comfortable in their skin playing the game they love.
What about the GLBTI kids watching the game? How do they see possibilities for themselves – when they don’t see GLBTI people openly playing footy?
In any context, where there are no openly GLBTI people, homophobia is alive and well, flourishing.
We’ve gotta keep working on this front – to make it no big deal for an AFL player to say they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
So Outer Sanctum podcasters, here’s my answer to your question – How is your relationship with footy right now:
My relationship with AFL footy is dynamic. It’s always on the move.
It’s a relationship filled with the most incredible highs, too many to count on the edge of my seat excitement moments, existing alongside the anger, frustration and despair that comes with following any sporting team.
It’s a relationship that’s inextricably linked to my often lonely and brutal past. So while I could feel at home watching and listening to my team on TV and radio, I never felt safe or welcome back then at a footy ground or on the sporting field.
It’s a relationship where I often feel confronted by the worst aspects of humanity – in the outbreaks of bigotry that regularly burst through.
But you know what – it’s changing on that front. And that fills me with so much hope.
More and more people are speaking up against, and taking action against prejudice, as well as continuing to educate and inform footy communities.
On so many diversity fronts – we the previously outcast and silenced – have started to to speak up and claim our space within traditional blokey footy cultures.
And in so doing, we’re reshaping these sporting cultures, little by little, bit by bit.
Not only that, we’re creating new spaces where the business as usual is discarded – in favour of inclusive, challenging conversations that reflect more of us within this country and various sporting communities.
And it’s this sort of relationship that I want to continue to be part of.
Diverse Footy Voices
This post is inspired by the Outer Sanctum Podcast. I love this show because it regularly goes where other footy shows don’t, exploring issues such as race, gender and sexuality in football.
- It’s a not to be missed blend of challenging and insightful analysis, laugh out loud moments, and inspiringly diverse voices that are rarely accorded space in mainstream footy coverage.
- Plus, the co-hosts, all Hawthorn fanatics, regularly call-out their privilege as white women.
Caroline Wilson is the Chief Footy Writer for The Age
- Caroline shines a light where others refuse to go, speaking up and challenging the business as usual in footy.
Jason Ball came to attention when he came-out as gay in his local football league. Since then, he (alongside many other community activists) has spearheaded a campaign for greater acceptance of GLBTI people in football, culminating in the AFL Pride Game.
The Marngrook Footy Show is a weekly Indigenous AFL footy show featuring Leila Gurruwiwi and Shelley Ware.
Listen to Chicks Talkin’ Footy – on JoyFM
Pushing The Edge for Innovation & Social Justice in Education
I regularly chat to educators who are challenging the business as usual in education – especially on the Innovation and Social Justice fronts.
Have a listen in Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.