Banter and heckling are a normal part of Australian sport, for both spectators and players. From sledging on the cricket pitch to institutionalised cultural rivalries such as rugby league’s State of Origin, it’s arguably one of the things that makes Australian sport great.
But too often, cheekiness devolves into something far uglier, as rising football star Josh Cavallo experienced over the weekend.
The 22-year-old Adelaide United player made headlines last year in October when he came out as gay, becoming the only current top-flight male professional footballer in the world to ever do so. It was a brave and candid move that garnered him praise both at home and abroad, including from top players like Gerard Piqué and Marcus Rashford as well as clubs such as Liverpool and Juventus.
Yet just months after going public about his sexuality, Cavallo has spoken out about the deluge of homophobic abuse he copped during Adelaide’s away game against Melbourne Victory last Saturday both from spectators at the game as well as on social media.
“I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t see or hear the homophobic abuse at the game last night,” Cavallo posted on Instagram.
“There are no words to tell you how disappointed I was. As a society it shows we still face these problems in 2022. This shouldn’t be acceptable and we need to do more to hold these people accountable. Hate never will win. I will never apologise for living my truth and most recently who I am outside of football.”
“To all the young people who have received homophobic abuse, hold your heads up high and keep chasing your dreams. Know that there is no place in the game for this. Football is a game for everyone no matter of who you are, what colour your skin is or where you come from.”
He’s also called out Instagram itself, saying “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that I’ve received. I knew truely being who I am that I was going to come across this. It’s a sad reality that your platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”
Cavallo’s shown extraordinary grace under fire and has made some salient points, especially where Instagram is concerned. The social media platform and its parent company Meta (better known as Facebook) is notoriously hands-off when it comes to moderating hate speech, bullying, fake news and the like. It’s a toxic, Silicon Valley libertarian, irresponsible attitude that’s caused a litany problems in our society.
But the real issue is this: how many times does Australian sport, and Australia more broadly, need to learn this lesson? How many times must history repeat itself?
There’s a long history of Australian sporting fans taking things too far when it comes to chants. Traditionally, we’ve seen it in the form of racism: just think of the AFL’s ugly Adam Goodes booing saga. Hell, it was only last year where we saw our Test series against India marred by allegations of fans shouting racist slurs at Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj.
We haven’t encountered as much overt homophobia before, perhaps because so few athletes remain in the closet precisely because of their fears about facing discrimination from fans and fellow players. Clearly, those fears are well-grounded, as Cavallo’s experience demonstrates.
The issue goes beyond gross chants or online abuse. Research from Pride in Sport Australia has revealed that 75% of Australia believes an LGBTQI person would not be safe as a spectator at a sports game, and that there remain significant barriers hampening the participation of people with diverse sexualities and genders within Australian sport.
“We know that 87% of gay men and 75% of lesbians remain completely or partially in the closet while playing youth sport in Australia,” Beau Newell, Pride in Sport Australia’s national program manager, tells The Star Observer.
“The reason for that is many fear discrimination from coaches, other players, and officials. That’s compared to 55% of people in the workplace environment. Our research shows that only 20% of people in Australia believe that their sport is genuinely committed to LGBTQI inclusion.”
Ian Roberts, the first high-profile Australian sportsperson and first rugby player in the world to come out to the public as gay, recently shared his frustratation with Reuters about the glacial pace of change when it comes to tackling homophobia in Australian sport:
“It has been a quarter-century, I hate to think about that, but truly it has been a quarter-century since I came out… yet it seems nothing is changing.”
To be clear, this is not just an Australian problem (nor do we want to conflate racism with homophobia). But it is a problem that affects all forms and levels of Australian sport, from high school tennis to the top tier of football.
Australians value free speech. There’s a big difference between robust support at a game or gentle digging at mates in the locker room – and straight-up vilification. But we really need to reflect as a country on why hate speech and negative attitudes are so common in Australian sports. We need to set a better example for younger generations, and actually learn from these unfortunate incidents.
Because we all lose out if our fellow Australians are discouraged from getting involved in sports because of homophobia. As Cavallo puts it, it’s 2022 – it’s time for a change.