Former footy star Matty Johns says no to homophobia in sports
Former rugby league football luminary Matty Johns has added his voice to the cause to eliminate homophobia from sports ahead of a commitment on Wednesday by Australia's major sporting codes to work towards ridding Australian sport of homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It’s a change of tune for the rugby league legend who has come under fire in the past for less than exemplary behaviour when it came to his understanding of the difficulties and discrimination faced by LGBTI people.
In skits on the Footy Show, gay stereotypes were often exploited for humour. In one particular skit in 2009, which caused the ire of the LGBTI community, Matty portrayed ‘Elton Johns’, a fictional gay younger brother who ‘minced about’ and was described as ‘faulty’.
At the time, former NRL player Ian Roberts - who was mentioned in the skit - blasted the show and Johns for its homophobia saying: “Guys, what you don't understand — you think it's funny, but there are gay kids in the suburbs who are killing themselves because they don't know what to do about their sexuality. They kill themselves."
Today, Johns is repentant, looking back at those early sketches and wondering what he was thinking.
"I’m embarrassed," he tells SX.
"I look back and I’m horrified. What I’m really sorry about is the naivety – to do things and not realise the pain it would cause others. The people that knew me, know I’m not homophobic in any way, shape or form, but I was unaware of the impact it would have on others.
"I think what really opened my eyes was a few months after that, I got a call from a prominent member of the gay community who wanted to point out a few things to me about why comments like that hurt – and I have to say it was an eye opener.
"So ignorance and naivety – which is no excuse.
"And Ian's comments really stung me, as I have the utmost respect for Ian Roberts and I’ve always viewed him as a tremendous bloke and about the toughest player in the game. I spoke to Ian recently on different issues and I remember as I was about to talk to him, I was thinking to myself – gee I wonder if he will talk to me – and I hope he has forgiven me."
That Johns stands before us now wanting to commit to a plan of action to end homophobia in Australian sports is testament that tolerance and understanding can be taught.
With more professional sports players coming out these days, Johns says young people who may be hiding their sexuality should rest assured that the “vast majority will have nothing but respect for people that come out and are open about it”.
He believes the lack of out sports players in Australia may be because people fear the response they will get from teammates.
“I think there is just a genuine fear of being ostracised. And in the past that may have been the case," he says.
He adds: “There can be a general thought that because of the nature of the sport of rugby league that it can be a game where homophobic views can be tolerated. But I know from my experience playing in the code, that to the blokes I played alongside, race, religion, sexual orientation were of no importance – what was important was if you played hard or trained hard.”
Today the football codes are pushing to rid themselves of the labels of the past which often saw football depicted as a denizen for homophobia, misogyny and racism.
“I think there is a real push from within the game as they are embarrassed by the image [of homophobia] in sport. I think it is also a real opportunity for sports to lead the way," Johns said.
On Wednesday CEOs from the ARU, NRL and AFL football leagues, as well as the Football Federation of Australia and Cricket Australia, will join together to commit to creating an inclusive sporting culture free from homophobia.
The move is a world first and sees all the codes in the country committing to eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation with a commitment to implement anti-homophobia policies by August 2014 ahead of the Bingham Cup.
[Image] Matty Johns and Nathan Hindmarsh send their message of support. Photo: Courtesy Bingham Cup Sydney