Home » Jeremy Finlayson’s AFL ban could herald new era for footy after years of inaction | Jonathan Horn

Jeremy Finlayson’s AFL ban could herald new era for footy after years of inaction | Jonathan Horn

In the early 2000s a young AFL player was doing one of his regular radio slots when he and his co-hosts decided to play a game of word association. Lion – roar. London – doubledecker. And so on. “Gay,” one of the hosts offered. There was a long pause. “Die,” the player said.

If a footballer or broadcaster said that now you’d like to think they’d be run out of town. But back then it barely raised an eyebrow. It was certainly no impediment to career progression. Such ripping repertoire was in the news this week, after Jeremy Finlayson was eventually suspended for a homophobic slur. It took five days to decide on his penalty. The sticking point was the precedent set by Alastair Clarkson’s slap on the wrist earlier in the year. In effect the AFL conceded that it had been too lenient with the North Melbourne coach and that this was its stake in the ground.

The issue of homophobia and footballers was covered in depth by the ABC investigative journalist Louise Milligan on Four Corners last year. At times it was drowning in cliche: “the AFL’s last great taboo”, “the silence is palpable”. It included a completely nonsensical contribution from Jason Akermanis. But there were also some thoughtful interviews and it was a long-overdue look at an issue the footy media has largely been reluctant to tackle.

Throughout the episode the prevailing tone was bewilderment. Why, Milligan asked, are there no publicly gay players? Over a pensive pint, Robert Murphy said: “I would think a player to stand up in front of teammates and say, ‘I’m gay, and I’m one of you, and I want you to accept me,’ that that would be like a superpower for your football team and your football club.”

For Murphy, for Milligan, and for anyone else with a shred of decency who couldn’t understand why a footballer has never come out, it was almost as though they were pleading to the closeted: “You’ll be a hero, you’ll make a lot of money, and you’ll be in a safe space.”

But every one of the gay footballers interviewed talked about how words and slurs can deter and drive young men from the game. Language matters, irrespective of whether it comes from an opponent, a spectator, a commentator or a Tweeter with six followers and strong views. And, for so long, a young person coming to terms with their sexuality had good reason to doubt whether there was a place for them in the hyper masculine football world. They looked and they listened and they asked, quite reasonably, “Will I be welcome here?”

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What was interesting was the way the football industry didn’t really engage with the story. The football media will have a conversation about pretty much anything – about headbands, about GoPros, about ice baths. The more trivial the subject matter, the more it drags on, and the greater gusto with which we debate it. But this story was too hard, too awkward. What has been equally instructive is the almost universal condemnation of Finlayson’s slur. The Four Corners report covered territory that was too complex, too uncomfortable. This was simpler. This was a matter of sanctions. Three weeks, the same as what you get for a sling tackle. He erred, he owned it, he apologised and he was suspended.

For years in the football industry, it was hard to know where the line was when it came to sanctions, let alone being sacked. You could assault your partner, set fire to the hired entertainment on Mad Monday or compare the Australian of the year to an ape and emerge pretty much unscathed. You could call someone a faggot with impunity long after you could racially vilify someone. When Brian Taylor called Harry Taylor a “poofter” in 2014, there were also plenty of people defending him – oh, come on, it’s nothing, lighten up, it’s a term of endearment. Earlier that year he said of the reporter Seb Costello: “I don’t want to offend his upbringing or his parents … but he looks gay.” “We’ll certainly be condemning him to some serious counselling,” his boss said. The rest of us were condemned to his commentary.

Things have changed since that word association game. “If we look back to where the game and community standards were, you know, 30 years ago, as an industry and as a community and society, we’ve come a long, long way,” Brad Scott said on Tuesday. Indeed, we have. But we were miles behind to begin with.