Monday, May 24, 2010

The Aker Thread We Had To Have

I'm furious with Akermanis. I heckled him at the game on Saturday, and I'll probably be joining people with a banner against him next week. The Channel 7 outrage is far more serious, but I love AFL, and I'm a Dog's fan. This is personal.

Nevertheless, I think what is going on is a bit more complex than the commentary recognises. For a start, I don't think Akermanis is exceptionally homophobic. People have rightly mocked his "some of my best friends are gay" response when put under the spotlight, but the fact is that's still a big step forward from the "bash them all" response real bigots display. It's worth remembering that Aker is a rare thing in football - a bloke who chose to marry a highly intelligent, highly educated woman rather than someone who was either stupid, or trying desperately to pretend to be so. He is also rumoured to have refused to demand Brisbane trade someone he thought had committed rape because he wouldn't play with him. Two steps up on your stereotype knucklehead.

Aker is, however, arrogant. This is a statement somewhat lower in the controversy-creating stakes than the Pope's Catholicism. He's also a bit homophobic. And since he thinks he's better than everyone else - particularly better than the blokes he plays with and against - he assumes they're more homophobic. If he's only half ready for a player to come out, they must not be ready at all.

I think he's wrong about this, or at least half wrong. If a player who was unpopular for other reasons, or who was struggling to get a regular game came out now I think it wouldn't go well. However, if a popular talented player came out first it would change, well not everything, but a lot.

I don't believe AFL is more homophobic than Rugby League. For generations League has defined itself in opposition to Union on the basis that Union players were "a bunch of poofters". Certainly 2010 is a less homophobic point to come out than 1995. The problem is that players like Ian Roberts don't grow on trees. Roberts was a legend of the game, and a really nice bloke as well. If an equivalent in AFL (Brad Johnson, Adam Goodes) came out no one would have a word to say against them. There are quite a few players of lesser stature who would at least win universal support within their club.

I think there's a generational shift going on. Akermanis's comments were made in response to an AFL campaign to encourage acceptance in sport. A campaign a lot of players (including his coach and one of his teammates) have got on board with enthusiasm. Younger players have grown up with heroes who have come out as gay from other sports or the media. Aker doesn't see that because he's too caught up in the idea he's better than these young whipper-snippers.

But here's the thing I think is really interesting. If I'm right about this, then what it proves is that Akermanis knows homophobia is bad - if he didn't why would it be important to him to think he's got less of it than everyone else. In other words, deep in the changing rooms of the AFL the message is already seeping through: being bigoted is not something to be proud of.