A-Leagues aim to avoid backlash after launch of football’s opt-in ‘pride celebration’

<span>Photograph: Morgan Hancock/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Morgan Hancock/Getty Images

The A-Leagues will hold their version of a pride round for the first time later this month in a player-driven, opt-in initiative experts have lauded as more meaningful than similar events staged by some other codes.

The Australian Professional Leagues on Wednesday announced its inaugural pride celebration, to be held in Australia across the weekend of 24-26 February and in New Zealand on 4 March to preach diversity and inclusion.

Related: ‘Much bigger than a game’: A-Leagues’ Pride Cup seeks to drive change

It comes after Australian football’s second Pride Cup was confirmed for 26 February, when Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory will meet at AAMI Park in a game Adelaide’s openly gay player Josh Cavallo hopes will help change sport across the board.

The round is called a “pride celebration” as opposed to a “pride round” on the basis that, while there is still much to be improved, the behind-the-scenes work already done deserves recognition.

That includes education programs for club executives, staff and players, a trial of a new stadium safety and inclusion programme with the Melbourne Olympic Parks Trust (MOPT) which is now being rolled out nationally, and the introduction of GoBubble technology to help silence online hate for clubs, players and fans.

“The pride celebration is grounded in education, training and an ambition for long-term impact,” said A-Leagues chief executive, Danny Townsend. “We’re getting the foundations right to make positive change. This is certainly a long-term project, but we’re committed to ensuring every person involved with our game feels safe and included.”

Of particular importance to Pride Cup chief executive, James Lolicato, was the community element, with $1 from every ticket sold to be donated to Pride Cup’s community fund to support clubs and their own pride events.

Lolicato said Pride Cup was taking “a long-term approach” to combating, within all levels of the game, ingrained homophobic and transphobic language – the most damaging to the health and wellbeing of LGBTI+ people.

“We started this work in 2021, and we’ve been working alongside the A-leagues and all of the clubs on the development and the understanding … talking to them and discussing where the problem lies,” Lolicato said.

“The problem can’t be fixed by running out in a rainbow guernsey or holding a Pride round. How it can be fixed is when we implement community development, when we implement education, and when we implement programs into the wider A-Leagues community.”

The other point of difference is the heavy involvement of the player’s union, Professional Footballers Australia, in consulting with players to avoid situations like that which occurred at the Manly Sea Eagles last year, when the NRL club was forced to apologise for its “poor” execution in unveiling a pride jersey that was subsequently boycotted by seven players on religious and cultural grounds.

It also follows a similar backlash in the NBL in January, when Cairns Taipans players opted not to wear the jersey in the competition’s inaugural pride round, arguing they were protecting an unnamed player or players who had been “vilified” after reports of their hesitancy to wear the uniform on religious grounds.

“The A-League seems to be taking a much better approach than we’ve seen in other sports, in that there is a strong focus on encouraging local football clubs to host pride games and raising money to support local clubs to host the events,” said Erik Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University and lead author of the first international study on homophobia in sport.

“This is something that we haven’t seen in other sports and it’s very important because we urgently need to stop the constant use of homophobic language in children’s sport, because this behaviour is harmful to all children.”

However Denison, who was recently critical of the Australian Open’s pride day, was concerned about the A-Leagues’ use of the term “celebration” and its risk of “generating backlash” like that in rugby league and basketball.

“I think the marketing people at sports clubs believe that calling these events a ‘celebration’ will make them more palatable to the public, but we’ve found the opposite,” he said. “It’s much better to focus on how these events are held to stop the pervasive homophobic behaviour that is harmful, particularly to children.

“We have found highly religious athletes support pride events, but only when you explain to them that these games are an effective way to stop behaviours that are harming children. However, when we see them use the term ‘celebration’, this is generally when we see a backlash from these religious athletes. It seems to trigger them. This is because these athletes feel their religion prevents them from ‘celebrating’ or encouraging homosexuality.”