Jason Akermanis, whose 'closet' comments provoked a backlash. Photo: Colleen Petch
THE AFL's effort to combat homophobia became "too hard" after a campaign to promote inclusiveness backfired, a former boss of the Players' Association said.
Pippa Grange, the AFLPA's manager of culture and leadership until 2010, said the backlash to an article by the controversial retired player Jason Akermanis that she commissioned in her final months in the job was the low point of her seven years work in the sport.
Dr Grange, who now consults to Geelong on cultural matters within the club, told The Sunday Age that the effort to tackle homophobia was ''dropped" following heated reaction to the episode.
After leading a campaign against homophobia in early 2010, in which coaches and players were photographed holding placards advocating diversity, Dr Grange was eager to broaden the discussion using Akermanis. She enlisted the Brownlow medallist to write a column on homophobia.
But after working closely with him on the subject, the piece ran in News Ltd newspapers with the headline ''Stay in the Closet''.
''The topic got dropped,'' Dr Grange said. ''That was a real lowlight for me. It was put to bed as a 'too hard' topic after being opened up. It wasn't closed down by the AFL as such but it went to the bottom of a very long list of things that the AFL are asked to work on. So I was disappointed that it had been something so positive that became a cold topic.
''What disappointed me so much was that people who I know are well-intentioned, and may have been willing to go with the conversation, turned right off the conversation. I can only reflect on my error … that I didn't invest the time in bringing people along enough, before we hit a crisis.
''It needed a lot more voices in the conversation and commitments from all over the place.
''I had commitment from the players and the PA, and we'd started a steering group at the AFL, but it was really in its infancy.''
There are more than 750 players listed with AFL clubs and none are openly gay.
Last year, Dr Helen Szoke incensed the AFL's chief executive, Andrew Demetriou, after she accused the league of stalling on a promise to combat homophobia. Dr Szoke, then commissioner of Victoria's Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, said the organisation had been invited by the AFL to join a group to consider related issues, but lamented: ''It doesn't appear that that has necessarily been followed up with any public activity.''
A 2010 study by Victoria University, Come Out to Play, found the AFL was perceived to be the least-friendly environment for homosexuals, according to a survey of 307 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Victorians involved in sport.
The research showed almost half of the participants were not ''out'' in their sporting clubs, and 26 per cent of the men surveyed told of sports they would like to play but didn't because they feared abuse.