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Behind the Touchline

This essay on homosexuality in Australian football was first published in the ‘Spectrum’ section of The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 3 July, 2004, and later anthologised in Black Inc’s The Best Australian Sports Writing 2004.

Footballers’ sex lives have dominated the headlines this year. Gang rape allegations rocked both rugby league and AFL clubs, resulting in police investigations. More recently, St George Illawarra player Mark Glasnier hit the headlines for the wrong reason when he was found to have left an obscene voicemail message on a woman’s mobile phone after a night out with team-mates.

These recent scandals have given us plenty to consider about the culture of intimate, and at times sexual, group bonding that goes on inside football clubs. Strange, then, that football culture has so little to say publicly about sexual orientation – except perhaps for Paul (Fatty) Vautin donning a dress to take the mickey on The Footy Show. And spare a thought for those footballers who are gay.

Nearly 10 years ago, rugby league front-rower Ian Roberts outed himself to widespread public support. He remains the only professional footballer to have done so – in any code. While the proportion of gay men playing elite football in Australia probably isn’t as high as in the general community, it would be naïve to think there are none.

The absence of real discussion about homosexuality in football is made odder by the almost absurd eroticism in the game itself – sweaty men grappling with each other in tackles, scrums and marks. Soccer players, especially, exchange jubilant hugs and kisses when they kick goals. Then there’s the locker room, complete with steamy clichés of all-male group showers, massage tables and whippings with wet towels.

But at the same time, it’s patently ridiculous to suggest that any of this means footballers or football culture are gay. It does a disservice to homosexual players to suggest they have ulterior motives for being involved in the game, when they probably just want to play some footy.

So, how do we describe the way footballers relate to each other, on and off the field? Rather than talking about “homosexuality” or “homoeroticism,” the most apt concept is “homosociality,” says Professor Elspeth Probyn, head of the University of Sydney’s gender studies department. Homosociality is a way of describing “the circuits that happen around same-sex groups congregating in gendered places and doing gendered things,” Probyn explains.

Women have their own homosocial rituals, from girls’ nights out to knitting circles. But the male bonding that goes on in football teams is part of another tradition, says Probyn, who points to the armed forces and private schools. Within these institutions, men define their masculinity by being ritually initiated into a group. “While football culture isn’t quite so regimented, it does have a kind of residual tendency towards intensely physical bonding,” she says.

Homosocial rituals often involve dominance and subservience, and are sometimes highly sexualised. As the recent revelations of group sex have shown, a woman’s body can provide the means for men to create intimacy between themselves. At the time of the Canterbury Bulldogs rape allegations, Dr Michael Flood, an expert in gender and sexuality issues, pointed out that rugby league at the elite level is a man’s world. Flood, who works at The Australia Institute in Canberra, has conducted interviews with young men that revealed group sex can be an extension of teamwork.

The Bulldogs’ response to the allegations showed just how tight their bonding was. While the club made the requisite contrite media statements and assisted police with their investigation, there was widespread media criticism of the apparent cavalier attitude of players who showed up at a police station for questioning wearing shorts and thongs.

The defensive ‘bunker’ mentality of Bulldogs officials was also criticised by the press. The club refused to release the names of the players allegedly involved and conducted a “truth meeting” prior to going to police. No charges were laid against any player.

“One of the great things about the Canterbury football team is that they really bunker down under pressure,” said the Bulldogs’ chief executive, Malcolm Noad, on ABC’s Four Corners. Asked if he disapproved of that culture extending off the field, Noad replied, “In some instances, that’s not a bad thing.”

Flood has also pointed out that male homosocial rituals go beyond group sex. Men gather to watch pornographic movies – on football team buses, players have sometimes watched home videos of each other and celebrities having sex. In all-male environments, the absence of women enables behaviours like communal nudity and penis-grabbing.

But homosexuality threatens to unravel the homosocial group. When being a man is defined by physical contact with other men, the possibility that this contact is also sexual throws men’s gender identity into question. Probyn says that while she would separate the two behaviours, but most people don’t. Instead, they’re more likely to think: “He’s a poof; maybe I am too.”

This anxiety sometimes spills onto the field. Ray Biffin, a VFL player for Melbourne in the 1970s, once unsettled his opponent, St Kilda’s Trevor Barker, by kissing him on the lips and fondling his buttocks. “It stunned Trevor,” Biffin recalled in 1996. “The crowd just chanted that I was homosexual all day and it put Trevor off his game. I finished up kicking six or seven goals and we won the game.” There was a certain playfulness to Biffin’s actions: Barker was good-looking and had a reputation as a ladies’ man. His team-mates even dubbed him Alvin Purple after the raunchy Australian movie character, because he’d once locked himself out of a motel room in his underwear.

Biffin’s antics tap into the Aussie male tradition of ‘taking the piss’. Indeed, he and Barker later were able to joke about the incident. But nobody was laughing in 2001, when rugby league winger John Hopoate notoriously stuck his finger up the backsides of rival players from the North Queensland Cowboys. Hopoate claimed it was merely a tactic to make his opponents drop the ball, saying: “I’m a great believer in what happens on the field should stay there.” But the National Rugby League judiciary found Hopoate guilty of “conduct contrary to the true spirit of the game,” and suspended him for 12 matches.

Catharine Lumby is director of the department of media and communications at the University of Sydney. Working with gender and culture researchers from across the university, Lumby is conducting a six-month research project for the NRL called “Playing By the Rules”. Through methods including focus groups with players, coaches and administrators, she and her colleagues are examining attitudes and behaviours surrounding gender and sexuality.

Lumby argues that sport is one of the few arenas where men are able to express themselves, physically and emotionally. “You see men hugging and weeping and screaming and touching, but it’s in a rule-bound context. They can only do it in really ritualised ways.”

And Hopoate’s behaviour was way outside the rules. At the time, NRL judiciary commissioner Jim Hall said that during his 45-year involvement in rugby league, he’d “never come across a more disgusting allegation.” Cowboys captain Paul Bowman, one of Hopoate’s victims, testified: “I know it’s a tough game, but there’s no room for that,” adding that if Hopoate “was a man, he wouldn’t do that.”

It’s interesting that the homosexual connotations of Hopoate’s behaviour should be seen so emphatically to strip him of his manhood, while his victims’ manhood was only enhanced by their feelings of violation. But like other homosocial cultures, football culture thinks about penetrating the body as something that’s only done to women and gay men. Hopoate’s real offence was to call his victims’ manhood into question; the NRL judiciary restored it.

In a way, the entire Hopoate incident was a perverse parody of the female sexual assault scenario. As Lumby puts it, “the rules are there to ensure nobody thinks they’re gay.” But the rise of the sensitive, well-groomed ‘metrosexual’ has made the rules harder to implement. Sporting culture just doesn’t seem to know how to categorise players who reveal aspects of themselves other than the gruff heroes they’re expected to be on the field. And in the absence of wider definitions of manhood, the culture defines them as ‘gay’ by default.

Take swimmer Ian Thorpe, whose haute couture wardrobe and penchant for pearl necklaces raised eyebrows. Younger men in general are chafing at the “straitjacket” of traditional masculinity, says Lumby; and they’re also not convinced that masculinity is incompatible with femininity – or homosexuality.

Nonetheless, you can still find plenty of defensiveness in football. And it usually manifests as knee-jerk panic over perceived homosexuality, and fervent media speculation about individual players. Just ask AFL player and Hawthorn captain Shane Crawford.

Like Thorpe, Crawford’s sexuality has become public property. He’s articulate, he knows the importance of skincare, and he’s taken acting, singing and dancing classes in the hope of pursuing a career in musical theatre. Perhaps most damning of all, in the eyes of some, he took his mother to the Brownlow Medal presentation ceremony. “Even family have actually doubted me at times because of what people have said,” Crawford said last year. “Early on, I found it ridiculous. I know that I’m not gay, but I do have friends that are gay. I actually respect them probably even more for saying they are rather than hiding the fact.”

He’s grown angry at the continued gossip. “You hoped it was true, so you could snigger,” he wrote in his recent book, Shane Crawford Exposed. “I hope you hate yourself. I’m not gay.” After this revelation, Crawford was featured in a Melbourne gay weekly newspaper, MCV, under the tongue-in-cheek headline: “If you can’t be gay, be Shane Crawford.”

Crawford is one of AFL’s renaissance men: articulate on a range of topics, and savvy enough to negotiate a media-saturated industry. A regular panellist on the AFL Footy Show, Crawford even played off the gay speculation in his role in the program’s spoof soap opera, Bulger MD. A storyline early this year introduced the character of Dr Pink, played by the Richmond Tigers’ Nathan Brown, as a love interest for Crawford’s Dr Hank Bulger.

It would be stretching the bounds of credibility to think of the Dr Pink storyline as a breakthrough in gay acceptance. Instead, there’s more than a dash of the old-fashioned piss-take involved, with a bit of self-reassurance thrown in. By acting out taboos surrounding gender and sexuality, footballers can pre-empt criticism and cement their status as happy-go-lucky straight guys. It’s not so far away from Fatty Vautin and his dresses after all.

“It’s like that Seinfeld joke: ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that’,” says Lumby. “Even men who aren’t homophobic still have to make jokes about ‘I’m not gay’.” These kind of anxieties arise in any environment where you might find straight men bonding together, she adds. “It’s to relieve the tension to do with intimacy.”

Curiously, however, Brown featured in only two episodes of Bulger MD before quitting. The question was, wrote The Age’s Geoff McClure, “did Brownie jump or was he pushed?” According to the Tigers’ football manager, Greg Hutchison, Brown decided “off his own bat” not to proceed. “He did a couple of pilots but, in the end, he came to his own conclusion that it would be best if he didn’t go ahead with it.”

Greg Miller, the Tigers’ director of football, questioned whether the media exposure would be “portraying the right image” for younger players. Last year Crawford himself faced similar criticism from officials at Hawthorn, who argued he lacked the “commitment” to the club that a team captain ought to show.

The Tigers officials were trying to redefine a ‘real’ footballer as someone whose interests lay solely on the field, and whose loyalty lay with his club and teammates. But instead, they came across as reactionary and anti-gay. “You could call me old-fashioned, but that’s how I see it,” Miller said at the time. This year, the Footy Show host and Collingwood Football Club president, Eddie McGuire, said he was prepared to believe the Dr Pink incident wasn’t homophobic, “although it appeared at the time that it was.”

And there’s the rub, so to speak. While there’s very little overt homophobia in AFL, or in other codes, there seems to be a pervasive discomfort surrounding the topic, and a willingness to avoid openly discussing it outside pantomimish role-play. According to one rumour, an AFL player was planning to out himself in the late 1990s, but was dissuaded by his club. This can only be detrimental to closeted gay players who quietly observe the way their peers portray homosexuality, and the almost panicky way their clubs clamp down on behaviour that could be construed as gay.

If masculinity is still ultimately defined as ‘not homosexuality’, it goes a long way towards explaining why so few players are willing to come out and say they’re gay. Liz Guiffre, assistant editor of the Sydney-based queer magazine Bent, has listened to many stories of coming out, and is familiar with the pitfalls. She thinks football culture isn’t necessarily keeping players in the closet – it’s “seldom easy” for anyone.

“Announcing homosexuality depends on the honesty of the individual, and, of course, their personal strength,” says Guiffre. “Half the battle is accepting yourself first.” Clubs also need to fulfil their part of the bargain, says Guiffre, and create a culture of gay acceptance. “If the people [that players] respect – senior players, officials, etc. – stood up and said: ‘this attitude is or is not acceptable’, it may make a difference,” she says.

It’s a vicious circle. Until a player declares his homosexuality, the leagues are unlikely to deal with the issue; but the current lack of official recognition acts as a disincentive for players to come out of the closet in the first place. “People need to be educated before this becomes an issue,” wrote four-time premiership player and coach Rodney Eade in The Age. “Let’s not wait until an unsavoury situation arises where a player is abused, ridiculed or vilified because of his sexual preference.”

So, what does the future hold? Eddie McGuire told the gay monthly Q Magazine that he’d be happy for the first gay AFL player to come from his club. “Whereas once upon a time this would become a major issue, now it would be, ‘Oh yeah? Good. Next’,” he said. “Good on him. Let’s hope so,” says Lumby.

Guiffre is less optimistic. “It’s difficult to say that sexuality will ever be a non-issue anywhere,” she says. “In my experience talking to people personally and professionally, and in particular where there’s an extremely strong ‘boys will be boys’ mentality, as there is in league especially, things like alcohol and infidelity may be more accepted [than homosexuality].”

Sure, there’s a long way to go, says Lumby, but football is no more homophobic “than your average law firm.” Footballers may even have better opportunities than most to work through what it means to be a contemporary Australian man, she adds, because its culture grants them a space to express themselves.

Shane Crawford has said that while it’ll be hard for any gay footballers to declare their sexuality, he’ll certainly lend them his support. “It’s gonna happen and I look forward to the day that someone stands up and says, ‘That’s me’.”