By Tiffanie TurnballBBC News, Sydney
Thursday night was meant to be a proud moment in Australian sporting history.
For the first time, a National Rugby League (NRL) team would take to the pitch in a rainbow-detailed shirt, celebrating inclusion – especially of LGBTQ people.
Instead, the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles were forced to apologize after seven players decided to boycott the key match on ‘religious and cultural’ grounds.
“Instead of improving tolerance and acceptance, we may have hindered that,” coach Des Hasler said earlier this week.
Amid a huge backlash, players were told not to attend the game for security reasons.
Former club major Ian Roberts – the first male professional athlete to come out as gay in his career – said he was “heartbroken” by the players’ decision. NRL women’s star Karina Brown said their boycott left her “enraged” and “frustrated”.
It would discourage other players from coming out, said Josh Cavallo, the only player absent from top-flight men’s football in the world.
But others – including church leaders, fans and players – defended the boycott.
“Each to our own… if we are asked to respect the Pride community, we should also respect the Christian or religious community,” said New Zealand Warriors player Shaun Johnson.
A toxic culture?
The seven players – Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolu Koula and Toafofoa Sipley – are not the first Australian athletes to object to wearing a rainbow jersey.
Last year, Australian Football League (AFL) women’s player Haneen Zreika missed a game for the same reason.
But there have been many controversies surrounding the inclusion. Most famously, star player Israel Folau was sacked in 2019 by Rugby Australia for saying “hell awaits” gay people on social media.
A few years earlier, a 19-year-old NRL player used an extremely profane and homophobic slur on an opponent. He was banned for two games.
And in 2020, AFL women’s player Tayla Harris was so abused on social media – much of it sexist and homophobic – that she offered to forfeit her salary for the competition. uses to hire an online moderator.
Since then, an A-League football club has been fined after the crowd insulted Josh Cavallo, and transgender women have found themselves at the center of debates over who should be able to play sports.
All of this combines to make Australian sport a largely unwelcoming place for LGBTQ people and especially children, a behavioral science expert has told the BBC.
“Sport is so toxic right now,” said Erik Denison, who has spent years seeking inclusion in sport in Australia and overseas.
His peer-reviewed research on Australia published over the past two years has found:
- Only 1% of players in traditional male sports, like rugby, AFL or league, identify as gay or bisexual
- Around 36% of girls playing in youth teams say they have been victims of homophobic abuse, and more than half of boys – those who have been taken out are the most likely targets.
- More than half of men in male-dominated sports say they’ve used homophobic language in the past two weeks
And homophobic attitudes in sports can have very real effects, Roberts pointed out, reflecting on the jersey debate.
“It’s very personal to me, as an older gay man, because I’ve lost friends to suicide and the consequences of what homophobia, transphobia and all phobias can do to people.”
Is Australia really that bad?
Homophobia in sport is a global problem, but Australia seems particularly reluctant to deal with it, Denison said.
“The fact that it has taken so long and is so difficult to get Australia to embrace these things, that in itself is indicative of a serious problem, a lack of care…and ‘a lack of honesty with themselves.
Pride initiatives have been around for a decade in the UK and longer in the US and Canada. So why are they less common in Australia?
The AFL has a pride ride. But Denison said it remains the only major professional men’s sport in the world to never have an openly gay or bisexual player, even after his retirement.
Roberts said he had long pushed the NRL to introduce a Pride Tour, but the alleged fear of backlash from religious players and fans was holding the move back.
But Denison believed the problem was a lack of will and a lack of planning.
“America is the most evangelical Christian country in the world…and we’ve never had a situation like this.
“[But] you need to have a bit of a strategy to get people on the journey. »
The Manly Warringah Sea Eagles admit they did not consult the players about the shirt, also apologizing for taking them by surprise.
The club chairman says all seven players have already signaled they will take part in similar events next season – if consulted.
Amid the fallout, the NRL say a competition-wide Pride round is on the table for next year.
But how is a jersey going to help someone? The Pride Games were actually the most effective — and arguably the only — bias-reduction initiative the researchers found for the sport, Denison said.
Young players and LGBT fans can see models wearing Pride colors.
And research has found that teams that run Pride Games use about 50% less homophobic language and less sexist and racist language.
Fans were already showing they wanted more inclusion, argued Sea Eagle fan Hannah McGrory.
“The jersey has sold out, so that speaks for itself,” she told the BBC.
But the damage to this saga is already done, some say.
According to a news report, a young gay Sea Eagles player who has yet to come out felt discouraged from doing so because of the stance taken by his senior teammates.
“He was devastated by the turn of events,” a friend of the player told local network Nine.
“[He] I just wanted to play as a freshman for Manly… he thought they would accept him for who he is if he ever decided to go public with his sexual preferences – clearly he didn’t.”