AFL 360 chat to gay footballer Jason Ball of Yarra Glen FC's senior squad in light of AFL's IDAHO day.
Richmond's Daniel Jackson (left) and Carlton's Brock McLean (right) join openly gay Yarra Glen footballer Jason Ball in a gay pride march. Picture: Andrew Tauber Source: News Limited
THE AFL will only be a truly inclusive game when a player comes out as openly gay and no one really cares.
Call it a media hunt, or extreme fascination with breaking new ground, but there is still intense interest in the first AFL player to publicly out themselves.
In the NBA Jason Collins recently came out as basketball's first active gay player to widespread support and a distinct lack of controversy.
So much so that his jumper number (98) commemorating a gay man killed and tortured in 1998 was the best-selling jersey for the club in recent weeks.
In Wednesday in Sydney the AFL will take another step when Andrew Demetriou and Sydney player Mike Pyke attend a meeting of all major sporting codes.
The aim at the meeting will be to work on measures to tackle homophobia and institute policies to tackle discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The league has come a long way since being criticised for its lack of action over Stephen Milne's homophobic taunts to Heritier Lumumba in 2011.
Pike, an ambassador for this year's gay rugby world cup The Bingham Cup, says he has no doubt an AFL player would be accepted if he came out as gay.
Like Carlton's anti-homophobia campaigner Brock McLean, Pyke has gay relatives and close gay friends.
As a Canadian, where gay marriage has been legal since 2005, Pyke is stunned we do not have the same privileges.
"It's just about creating an environment where people feel comfortable,'' he says.
"The football codes seem pretty macho and it's a matter of making sure your teammates feel as comfortable with themselves and with you.
Sydney ruckman Mike Pyke has backed marriage equality laws in Australia to match those in Canada. Picture. Phil Hillyard Source: News Limited
"You need to create an environment where people are happy to come out to not only friends, but people within the footy community.
"Certainly the statistics in our society point to the fact that there would be homosexual people in our sport, and if there are people in our clubs who do prefer the same sex and don't feel comfortable coming out, it's a real shame. It's something that gets discussed in our club occasionally and it's important that people do feel comfortable."
The AFL has telecast pro-inclusion and anti-homophobia ads on its stadium screens in recent years, with the most recent version featuring Hawthorn's Sam Mitchell and Melbourne's Nathan Jones.
"To me it doesn't make sense that we don't have same-sex marriage in Australia,'' says Pyke of the broader discussion about individual rights.
"It's pretty amazing, to be honest. Back home I am from Victoria (in British Columbia) and my mother had a bed and breakfast and some people came up from America to get married on-site. It's one of those things where I just don't understand why two people who love each other don't get the same benefits as the opposite sex."
He says more education is needed within the home and in schools to change perceptions, but it is hard to legislate to change people's minds.
Instead, people like Melbourne suburban footballer Jason Ball are as effective as any tool.
In 2012 he came out and in telling his story became the primary ambassador for this issue in our code.
Now AFL players are educated on the impact of homophobia using his experiences, with Ball leading last year's Pride March alongside McLean and Richmond's Daniel Jackson.
The reality that there are gay AFL players still hiding their sexuality means we have further to travel.
But football has come a long way since Jason Akermanis' inflammatory remarks, and is ready to accept its first openly gay player.
RALPHY DISCUSSED THIS AND OTHER TOPICS IN A LIVE CHAT EARLIER
The Brisbane Lions are without a win this season and soon they could be without defender Daniel Merrett who may have placed himself in hot water after a shocking late hit on David Swallow.
INTERVENTION HAS MERRETT
IT IS hard to think that Mark Evans will ever step in to intervene about a match review panel case if he won't refer the Daniel Merrett elbow to the tribunal.
It was a thuggish, brutal act from a player with regular tribunal appearances.
And with Merrett serving just two weeks — even with 46.56 carry-over points — it was exactly the type of incident that deserved escalation to the tribunal.
But clearly Evans is reluctant to step in, which means the AFL needs to find ways to penalise players who choose to elbow.
The direct comparison between the Nat Fyfe high contact and the Merrett elbow is confusing, because without carry-over points Fyfe would have only served one week to Merrett's two.
Merrett is also saddled with 78 carry-over points, which given his recent form are sure to bite him in the bum in the near future.
Still, the AFL community needs to feel when a player is cited the consequences for the hit are somewhere near fair.
That means the AFL needs to go back the drawing board and give elbowing a category of its own away from striking.
A strike can be an accidental hit in play, but players very rarely elbow someone if they don't mean it.
Daniel Merrett collects David Swallow. Source: Getty Images
So why not put elbowing incidents of the like of Shaun McKernan and Merrett's efforts up there on a par with kicking?
Under the AFL's match review panel directives, level 1 kicking is 125 points, level 2 is 250 points, level 3 kicking is 400 points and level 4 is 550 points.
Level 1 striking is 80 points, level 2 is 125 points, level 3 is 225 points, and level 4 is 325 points.
So if Merrett was charged with a level 4 offence as he was on Monday, he would face a 550 point penalty rather than the 325 he was allocated for striking.
With a good record and guilty plea he could still serve three weeks for the elbow with 80 or so carry over-points, which is just about par for the course.
If he had the carry-over points he had on Monday, he would serve four weeks, acceptable for a player with prior form.
David Swallow stays down after being hit high by Daniel Merrett. Picture: Adam Head Source: News Corp Australia
As it was on Monday, the match review panel couldn't do anything else, charging with him the highest intent — intentional — and the appropriate contact given Swallow suffered no injury: medium.
Their hands were tied, and the AFL chose not to act.
Right now it is better to elbow someone in the head than accidentally clash heads in a bump because rough conduct draws a heavier penalty than striking.
The match review panel's guidelines always throw up loopholes.
Of course making accidental head clashes reportable was always going to see some borderline incidents like the Fyfe hit anger fans early in the year.
The league wanted to crack down on players like Lindsay Thompson running past the ball to hip-and-shoulder and instead a pure ball player got done for bumping in the act of play.
But the league had a chance to act over McKernan's loophole and instead chose to give Evans more powers.
Given he isn't using them, it's time to rewrite the rules again.