THE AKERMANIS OF GAY FOOTBALL
When Matt Burrows was commemorated in early 2009 it was a full house at the Darebin Entertainment Centre as family and friends, including scores of Bullants past players, celebrated the life of a great VFA player. Burrows, the joint 1990 Liston Trophy winner, played 113 games with the Bullants between 1988 and 1994 but sadly died of a heart attack at only 41 years of age. No-one at the commemoration recoiled in shock or left the room when Matt’s best mate told a humorous tale about how he first learnt his mate was gay. In typical Aussie style ‘the secret’ was revealed over a few beers. Matt Burrows’ homosexuality certainly wasn’t treated as a secret at the commemoration. It was celebrated, not hidden.
The truth is homosexuality has never really been hidden in the football culture. Current Bullants general manager, Gary O’Sullivan, who first discovered Burrows was gay at a Liston Medal night in 2007, remembers there being an openly gay trainer at Caulfield when he and his brother Shane played with the Bears in the mid-70s. I recall a handful of gay trainers at Coburg during my time. So, contrary to the musings of Jason Akermanis in the media, I think it would be quite unremarkable for an openly gay person to play AFL football.
So why did Aker feel it necessary to advise gay footballers to stay in the closet? Maybe he is a victim of his own identity. As his career comes to a close he clearly feels the need to wear the ‘controversial’ tag, thus allowing his name to be associated with views capable of being misinterpreted. Akermanis is right to say his views don’t amount to homophobia. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t cop a few broadsides.
How much research for example went into the article in the Herald Sun? Did he discuss the matter with gay sportsmen and women? Did he talk to anyone who has coached a football team that included a gay man in its ranks? Does he even know that a gay man won the Liston Trophy in 1990 and that he was a tough, hard-running defender who ploughed through opposition lines?
The idea that a player coming out might damage the fabric of a football club is, I believe, trite and ill-founded. What footballer couldn’t coexist with a gay man in a team? After all, In the 1970s a local drag queen became an institution on the football scene. And we didn’t hear Aker telling the Bulldogs the recruiting of Barry Hall (whom I like), despite him king-hitting a player in a manner that was extremely dangerous, might damage the fabric of the club. Football clubs are diverse, dynamic and confounding places. I enjoyed my 18 years playing and coaching at Coburg but it would be disingenuous to say I didn’t find the attitude of some blokes towards women backward.
As the various scandals involving footballers and women in recent times surely confirm, the appearance of a gay man in a football club is the least of an AFL club’s worries. Coaches and clubs generally should be more concerned about the character of their players rather than their sexual preference. It would take the average footballer only a few minutes to ‘overcome the shock’ of discovering that one of their own was gay. And those jokes about not dropping the soap in the shower would probably only last a few nights. Yes, we’d have to deal with the temptation to ‘poofter bash’ on the field. Then again, if we could put an end to the racist sledging in the blink of an eye, what hope would ‘poofter bashers’ have?
When I was married (subsequently divorced) a week after we won the 1979 VFA premiership, my wedding party included a gay friend. I’d have had no problem lining up with him against Geelong West and raising the flag for him had the need arose. Sorry Aker, to quote Ned Kelly from his famous Jerilderie Letter, your bulldogs ‘were barking up the wrong tree’.