THE relationship between sport and its role in advocating social issues has once again come under the spotlight.

The Australian Football League women’s competition recently hosted a “Pride Round” dedicated to the celebration of inclusivity and diversity in gender issues.

The General Manager of AFLW, Nicole Livingstone, said recognising Pride Round as an official round in the competition provides the football community an opportunity to come together and celebrate the inclusivity of AFLW.

“We are proud to showcase AFLW Pride Round and give back to the community through awareness and recognition,” Ms Livingstone said.

“Our players and fans have been celebrating Pride in sport for a long time, and we’re thrilled to use the round to represent the diversity and acceptance we see in the modern AFLW game.”

Not all agree. Or at least, not all agree for sport to be used as a showcase for social problems.

The West Coast Eagle’s women’s coach, Michael Prior, opined that the pride issue had been overdone in its emphasis and importance.

“That’s not my role. I talk about footy, not what we’re wearing,” he told The West Australian publication.

“I think we’ve done the pride stuff to death to be honest.

“I want to talk about the footy, not the jumper.”

The comment came at a time when the club was alone in not wearing an official Pride Guernsey during Pride Round.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the backlash was immediate for the 48-year-old former Essendon and West Coast player.

Prior made his comment after becoming frustrated that the interview was not only about the club’s upcoming clash with the Adelaide Crows.

“I’ve got a simple view,” Prior said.

Prior’s position would be considered by current social norms, in the least as naïve, misguided or archaic. Or at the most, prejudicial or homophobic.

But it does raise a pertinent question as to whether sport, politics and social issues should remain mutually exclusive, or inclusive.

What role does sport play in association with issues such as domestic violence, breast cancer, motoneuron disease, racism, gender and religion?

Does it have an obligation to highlight social problems with the belief that it can change an individual’s cognitions and behaviour for a more tolerant and pluralistic society?

It is clear that Prior capsized under the resultant scrutiny and adverse publicity his stance evoked.

Prior said his comment did not represent his or the club’s views on the importance of Pride Round to coaches, players, staff and supporters but admitted it would have upset people who read his words.

“I sincerely apologise to everyone who was offended by the report in The West Australian on Friday, and the players, coaches, staff and myself look forward to participating in Pride Round this weekend,” Prior said.

“We have recognised and participated in Pride Round this week by wearing a unique training singlet, rainbow socks, media pieces and we will also have on-ground recognition on match day.

“The design, manufacture and production of a playing guernsey is a process we take seriously and we are collaborating with our playing group through this process before we respectfully release, celebrate and educate about our new jumper.

“To further clarify comments I made in an interview with The West Australian, during my conversation with the journalist, I stated that as the West Coast Eagles AFLW coach I was keen to talk about football and the massive challenge our group has ahead of them against the Adelaide Crows tomorrow.

“It has been widely reported our club does not have a guernsey for Pride Round this weekend, and my comments reflected the fact that as a club we have already extensively detailed the reasons for this and we were now keen to focus on the upcoming match.

“Footy is a game for everyone and, as a club, the West Coast Eagles welcome everyone as part of the footy family”

AFL Executive General Manager for Inclusion and Social Policy, Tanya Hosch said Pride Round reflects the competition’s commitment to being a sport for all, acknowledging we are working together with communities to make this more and more a reality with each season.

“This is the second year we have formally celebrated Pride Round across the women’s competition. We are certain we would not be in a position to hold the round without the years of work done and still pursued by the trailblazers of our game to create inclusivity, visibility and awareness for the LGBTIQ+ communities,” Ms Hosch said.

“The AFL is actively building our understanding of what it means to be inclusive in partnership with people across the spectrum of the code and with great generosity of

players, officials, staff and fans. We are supported by many community leaders and by Pride in Sport, who are specifically designed to assist sporting organisations at all levels with the inclusion of employees, athletes, coaches, volunteers and spectators with diverse sexualities and genders.”

For those players who identify with differing gender profiles, the symbolism of a Pride Round is extremely important for their mental health, identity and self-esteem.

Players like Gold Coast Suns’ Tory Groves-Little, who identifies as non-binary.

“Being part of the queer community since I was 15—I’ve just turned 21—Pride Round is just something so important to me because I’m able to be who I am and express who I am freely, and be accepted by all the AFL and the wider community,” Groves-Little said.

It also reflects the radical cultural changes expected, at times demanded, of society and individuals over the past few years.

One which most sports, including the AFLW, has embraced.

While Groves-Little was going through the process of coming out—one they say was a “long one”, from first announcing they were bisexual, to coming out as lesbian, to now, coming out as a non-binary person—they looked around them for guidance, from family, to friends, to the club.

The process of explaining their gender identity to the team was “daunting and exciting at the same time,” but ultimately fulfilling, they say. “Because I feel like I’m finally where I want to be.”

“We have a lot of gender identities in the AFLW that aren’t spoken about. So I’m just happy to help pave the way to having a safe environment.”

It’s a responsibility that Kara and Ebony Antonio, a married couple who both play for the Fremantle Dockers, can also relate to. The two women weren’t always open about their queer relationship—but they ultimately made the choice to be, after seeing what kind of difference it could make for others.

“I’m hoping that we’ve been able to help a number of young people come out and be proud of who they are and comfortable with who they are, through what we’ve done,” says Kara Antonio.

We have entered a brave, new world. At times, with seismic ramifications.

 

Image via abc.net.au

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