AFL players will be counselled against homophobic vilification for the first time as league bosses move to stamp out discrimination and make the game more welcoming for gay fans, players and officials.
From this season, as part of the league's Respect and Responsibility program - which includes education on racial and religious vilification - all first-to-third-year players will be educated on the impact of homophobia.
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Homophobia AFL documentary
As part of a new plan to stamp out sexuality-based discrimination, the AFL will educate all first to third year players on the impact of homophobia. This documentary, featuring gay Yarra Glen footballer Jason Ball, will form part of the education program. Vision courtesy: AFL
The AFL has produced a documentary featuring gay Yarra Glen footballer Jason Ball, who described the slurs he used to hear during the game, and how his fear of coming out pushed him to the brink of suicide.
The move forms part of a broader anti-homophobia strategy, which league bosses hope will reach all levels of the competition.
Late last year, the AFL employed Mr Ball to conduct a ''train the trainer'' workshop for more than 25 coaches, presidents and board members from country and suburban leagues across Australia.
The aim was to provide officials with guidance on how to minimise sexuality-based discrimination, and make their clubs more accepting environments for gay players.
Other issues covered included anti-doping, violence against women and cyber safety. The league representatives will now deliver training at their level.
''After hearing my story they had a lot of empathy and realised that a lot of players within their own football leagues could be in the same position, and they really didn't know what to do if an incident came up or if a gay player approached them about facing discrimination. They showed a great level of concern and were keen to know the answers to those questions,'' Mr Ball said.
In 2012, Mr Ball successfully lobbied the AFL to show anti-homophobia ads during the preliminary finals - a first for a national sporting code. It came after league boss Andrew Demetriou congratulated the 26-year-old for his courage in standing up to discrimination.
The AFL Players Association has also vowed to do more this season, and has invited a host of players - including Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson, Hawthorn premiership captain Luke Hodge and Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury - to show their support for the gay community by taking part in Pride March in St Kilda on February 2.
Carlton midfielder Brock McLean, who marched last year with Mr Ball and his teammates, will lead the contingent with Athlete Ally - an international collective that supports gay athletes.
AFL Players Association chief executive Matt Finnis, who also took part in the march last year, said he hoped many players would take up the invitation.
''What we've learnt from getting to know people like Jason Ball is the impact that quite a small effort and show of support can have,'' he said. ''We're very aware of some of the anxieties and stresses that young gay people deal with around their sexuality, and hopefully by showing their respect and support, AFL players can just ease some of that anxiety for some people.''
While critics have expressed concern the AFL's push would lead to pressure to ''out'' gay players, Mr Finnis said it was about inclusion. He welcomed the move to include sexuality as part of the players' educational program.
''An AFL club should be a first-class sporting workplace and that means it's a really diverse workplace, and that it's really respectful and inclusive of people of all backgrounds. We haven't necessarily had the tools or the focus around sexuality in the past, but I think it's a terrific thing that it now forms part of what we talk about because people have to feel comfortable and included and shouldn't be carrying any anxiety or feel uncomfortable about being themselves.''
Mr Ball hopes that telling his story will change attitudes. ''Coming out can be a really rough process for a lot of people, particularly in a football environment that seems really hostile to it,'' he said.
''Hopefully this will just make players think before they use homophobic language and make them challenge it when they hear it from their peers or from the coach or coming from over the fence. It will make the message clear that that kind of language isn't acceptable, and alongside racism it's something that should be stamped out of the game to make it more inclusive for everyone.''
An AFL spokesman said ''the AFL is continuing its efforts to promote social inclusion and acceptance across a number of fronts, including mental health, homophobia and racial and religious vilification. The personal stories of people such as Jason Ball are a powerful way of creating greater awareness and understanding."