Saint Lucia feels like a world away.
But on February 12 this year, it was the epicentre of a landmark cricketing moment.
England was in a commanding position, batting to extend its lead against the West Indies.
Then, the West Indies came under fire from fast bowler Shannon Gabriel when he allegedly uttered a homophobic remark.
It failed to register with camera microphones.
English captain Joe Root, hearing the alleged slur, responded with this quip: “Don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
Simple, effective, stopping the venom at the source. Former English captain Nasser Hussain said Root’s legacy would be defined by his scathing reaction.
Open and closeted cricketers worldwide, longing for a role model of their own, felt genuinely welcomed by one of the world’s best.
Now, fast forward to this week.
Former international representative James Faulkner posted an image to Instagram on Monday night, featuring his mother and ‘boyfriend’ out to dinner, celebrating their supposed five-year anniversary.
Fellow cricketers – some still playing internationally – rushed to voice their unequivocal support for their colleague’s openness.
“Great courage,” wrote all-rounder Glenn Maxwell.
“Good on ya mate,” chimed in former pace bowler Brett Lee.
Prima facie, Faulkner, as the source in this story, had just implied his relationship with another man. This would have made the Tasmanian the first professional male cricketer in the country to come out publicly.
However, Faulkner issued a statement the following day, saying his words were grossly ‘misrepresented’ and was only indicating affection for his friend (a later amendment on his post reflected their ‘best mate’ status).
Almost immediately, the social media blame game over who perpetrated the debacle began.
Journalists were roundly accused of overzealous reporting; fans criticised for extrapolating his sexuality from a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ post.
The James Faulkner story is as hilarious as it is unbelievable. A brilliant play-by-play on how our interpersonal communication as well as journalistic standards have gone down the tube
Far too much focus on social media both in every day life and in the media
Case. In. Point.
— Ned Balme (@NedBalmeLives) April 30, 2019
I’m my own here, but I don’t know if you can blame everyone for taking what James Faulkner posted at face value.What he posted seemed unambiguous. The hashtag reinforced it. Given we live in an accepting and loving society, why would anyone assume it was a ‘joke’? #jamesfaulkner
— Jonathon Gul (@JonoGul) April 30, 2019
But whether intentionally malicious or simply clumsy – in Faulkner’s case, it errs towards the latter – a high-profile public figure joking about their sexuality could have disastrous consequences for questioning youth.
Young LGBTI people are five times more likely to suicide.
What would young male athletes, still wrestling with a sexuality that doesn’t fit the entrenched heteronormativity of men’s sport, think of seeing a celebrated big-name cricketer backtrack like this?
“It’s no wonder that we have so few out-and-proud men in the macho world of sport when being gay is still seen as something to be ridiculed,” LGBTI advocate and openly gay footballer Jason Ball told news.com.au.
For those confused why the story ballooned rapidly and is seen as a groundbreaking moment, it’s as simple as this: There are still few publicly open LGBT+ athletes in professional men’s sport.
Presently, there are no openly gay male athletes in any of Australia’s major sporting codes, with former rugby league player Ian Roberts’ pioneering role as the first openly gay professional yet to be replicated.
Conversely, female sports champions are stratospheres ahead, having witnessed the adversity tackled by legends through time.
Some of our most well-known female athletes are comfortably open to walk with their partners down red carpets on their night of nights, or unashamedly display their love on social media.
So instead of combativeness on all sides, it would be better to question and rectify the systemic issues that hinder gay male athletes from fully expressing themselves publicly.
A recent report by Proud2Play found over half of survey respondents witnessed homophobia on the field, and pointed to lack of dialogue around LGBT+ policies and inclusion for low levels of awareness.
And, of course, the issue of online trolling remains pervasive and an ongoing issue our major sporting bodies are still trying to solve.
The presence of an openly gay male role model, who has told their story on their own terms, would encourage burgeoning athletes to continue pursuing their goals knowing others have come before them.
The silver lining to Faulkner’s post is it revealed Australia’s sportsmen would be undoubtedly welcoming of an openly gay player within their ranks.
It’s time for Australian sports organisations to take added measures to ensure the same.
- Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 224 636