* Matthew Pavlich is a Nine sports presenter and co-founder of Pickstar
Last week Melbourne United basketballer Isaac Humphries made the decision to share his personal story. First, with his teammates and then to the world who watched his inspirational social media video.
He exposed his deepest vulnerabilities and took an emotional risk. But he knew he was safe to do so. He knew both his teammates and the world had his back.
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That said, it was a truly brave act. Watching the video and feeling the depths of his anguish and now the freedom in which he can live was incredibly powerful.
The acceptance and love that was returned to him by his coaches and teammates was equally poignant. The public as well.
I could only imagine the turmoil and inner battle Isaac must have had leading into that meeting. I certainly cannot imagine how hard it has been for him to hide who he truly is in the past. The relief must be palpable.
His courage was immense. The fact that United have created a safe space for him to open up is equally commendable.
Many have asked me this week if I played with a gay AFL player or knew of any. I did not and I do not. But I hope in the future if a player felt more comfortable identifying with the LGBTQI+ community, then an AFL men’s team environment allowed that to occur.
All workplaces should be safe enough to allow you to be who you are and not have to hide.
At a time when so many in sport are working hard to create a more inclusive environment, the current FIFA World Cup seems to be the antithesis of progress. While most are working towards understanding and appreciation of our differences, the punitive local restrictions on LGBTQI+ lifestyles in Qatar are jarring.
In awarding the World Cup to Qatar, FIFA has created more challenges and controversy than first thought. This has put brands, media companies, national associations and players in a delicate position.
The Qatari regime’s human rights record has also been looted. Matches are being played in stadiums built by migrant laborers whose treatment has been the cause of international alarm. Construction sites around the country have had a sometimes-deadly record.
That puts those players competing in a tough bind. With the stakes being what they are, few would begrudge anyone just getting on with it – though some fans have been disappointed to see former greats like David Beckham take money to promote Qatar itself.
But a lot of players have felt they could not stay silent. Before heading to the Middle East, 16 of Australia’s Socceroos issued a collective statement of protest to the government of Qatar in the hope that things would change. The US national team will wear a rainbow crest in support of LGBTQI+ people, while Denmark sponsor Hummel has commissioned protest kits and the captains of countries including England, Wales, Germany and the Netherlands had planned to wear ‘One Love’ armbands until that was scuppered by a FIFA ruling.
Some may opt to keep their counsel while they are actually in Qatar – whether out of respect to their hosts or to avoid distractions from the goal at hand. But given the sensitivities around the tournament, the athletes’ voice will carry a long way.
Players at the center
Despite the location of the event, the FIFA World Cup will still have some incredibly memorable moments. It is that kind of occasion: the biggest single-sport event of them all.
The best athletes will still sense those moments that will come to define their career. They are the moments that transcend the ups and downs of their own playing lives, where they become part of something bigger.
Whether you enjoy the round ball game or not, you cannot deny that every four years it units a global audience of billions, capturing and concentrating popular attention like nothing else in the sporting calendar.
Those taking part this year will have those nervous flutters of excitement and pride, unlikely able to quite process the enormity of what lies ahead. Given the global nature of football, I must confess to a little jealousy and awe.
But there has also never been a World Cup quite like this one. On the pitch, stories will be written that live on for generations – creating champions, villains, folk heroes and tragic figures as they always do.
Off it, in the Qatar flea markets and bazaars, the competition will be a yardstick for change in the business of football. Yet the unique pressures of this edition – with its unusual scheduling and, above all, the scrutiny placed on a controversial host – I think we are guaranteed something out of the ordinary.
It all means that in 2022, the influence of star footballers will be felt in more and different ways than ever before.
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