By Matt Fotia
At age 12 Jason Ball realised he was attracted to men, he was homosexual. Even at that tender age his initial reaction was one of negativity. He was worried he would become an outcast in society and decided that he would live a lie. He would marry a woman, have children and no one would ever know his secret. All of this went through his head at age 12.
In the years that followed he went through many ups and downs but through the refuge of friends from other schools he began to feel comfortable with his sexual orientation and ‘came out’ to most of the important people in his life and they all accepted him, but he left his football club (Yarra Glen) to last.
Finally at the age of 22 his secret was revealed to his football teammates and rather than having his fears confirmed, the reaction of his then teammates laid the foundations for him to be where he is today.
Fast forward to 2019 and for the sixth year running he is giving his anti-homophobia talk to the players of the Yarra Glen Football Netball Club. In a room full of both female and male footballers and netballers he details his story and the necessity for acceptance in today’s society. He gives these talks to all clubs which partake in Pride Cups around the country.
For the thirty minutes he talks not a sound is made from anyone in the room, he is quietly spoken yet commanding. Players arriving late from work ensure they do not disrupt his talk. He is able to confront usually awkward topics with apparent ease.
It’s a long way from the boy who decided to live a lie at age 12.
Ball, now running for the Greens in the seat of Higgins, takes a seat in the rooms of the Yarra Glen Football Netball Club, a place where he played football for as long as he can remember. Tall and athletic he attracted the attention of both the leagues junior interleague coaches and then the Eastern Ranges – but he never felt comfortable chasing an AFL dream and was quite shy in his teenage years.
“I tried very hard to avoid certain conversations at the footy club. If I did get dragged into that sort of banter (romantic) I would just make a story or I would just change the names in my own stories from male to female.”
Ball is sure that no picked up on his homosexuality throughout his junior career and despite his best efforts to keep his off field antics hidden eventually he found he could no longer hide who he was. His secret was uncovered via the simplest of conversations.
“I remember someone asking what my boyfriend’s name was,” Ball says leaning back to look around his old stomping ground.
“I just answered without even thinking and the reaction that I received was a massive shock to me because the language that was used around the club had given me the idea that no one would want to play with someone who was gay.”
Words such as ‘poofta’ and ‘fag’ had echoed within the walls of Yarra Glen and no doubt many more football clubs throughout Ball’s upbringing. But when his teammates made no fuss about his news his mood around the football club lifted immensely and he felt comfortable enough to invite his then partner to his games. He apparently fitted in seamlessly with the other ‘WAGS’.
On the Third of May 2014, Yarra Glen hosted Yarra Junction in the first ever Pride Cup, a game they won by 91 points (they haven’t lost one yet). The Pride element of the day was a shadow of its current form with just the fifty metre arcs at Yarra Glen painted in the rainbow colours which represent the LGBTQIA community.
Then AFL Football Operations Manager Mark Evans announced that the AFL was fully supportive of the Pride Cup and opened up the invitation for AFL Clubs to make the Pride Cup their own on the national stage.
The 2015 edition against Warburton Millgrove saw the local council come on board and support it under their health promotion banner and along with the AFL, the Victorian Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and the St Kilda Football Club the event really took off.
“St Kilda got in touch with us in 2015 to learn from our Pride Cup so that they could take the game to the national level in 2016,” Jason recalls. He has seen so many Pride Cups in his time, but Yarra Glen’s editions always have a special place in his heart.
St Kilda’s CEO Matthew Finnis was leading the charge for the Saints and he had already been involved with Jason when working as the AFLPA Head in 2012. Matthew saw the Pride concept as one of player welfare.
When he arrived at St Kilda he saw a place that needed to reinvent itself on the culture front following on from a number of incidents that had occurred involving the Saints players.
“He saw St Kilda as a club that needed a facelift especially after the St Kilda schoolgirl scandal and so on. They really needed to make a stand about what their values were and what they stood for,” says Jason.
“And St Kilda as a suburb is the home of the Pride March and is known as a place where everyone belongs, so it makes sense that as part of the clubs DNA they stamp themselves as supporters of the LGBTQIA community.”
Players such as Sam Gilbert became ‘straight allies’ and the Saints have become leaders in this space. The AFL itself has become another powerful ally and during the 2017 Marriage Plebiscite the AFL released a video with AFL and AFLW players showing their support for the YES vote.
David Ball is a loyal servant of the Yarra Glen Football Netball Club and is Jason’s father. He has been heavily involved in every edition of the Yarra Valley Pride Cup. David and his wife had picked up on Jason’s sexual orientations years before he announced it to the football club.
“As parents we both knew, but decided not to force it (coming out) when he wanted to talk about it, he would talk to us about it.” David talks with the same soft yet gravitational tone his son does.
“Dad made it clear that he knew about it in a conversation we had when I was a teenager,” says Jason beginning to smirk across the table at his father.
“He asked my sister and I if we were seeing anyone and he specifically asked me if I had a boyfriend,”
“I think I told him to shut-up or words to that effect. Nobody wants to talk to their parents about that stuff, let alone come out to them.”
In regard to the way the club reacted to Jason and his sexuality, David is delighted.
“I’m enormously proud, it brings a tear to my eye every time I hear the story, because that year we didn’t win the Grand Final (against Belgrave) but we beat them by eight goals in the semi final and they were a much better side than us, but we played out of our skins and it was so obvious that the support for Jason and all of the Pride stuff played a massive part.”
“It also played a massive part in our communities outlook on the topic, there’s a great stat that this area’s YES vote numbers were one of the highest in Australia.” The Casey Electorate recorded a 68.06% Yes vote.
Jason still received push back when his story gained media attention, and he still sees pushback within communities that join up to play in their own Pride Cup.
“I got a letter from a local church asking me to let them ‘save me’ and the footy club got a letter condemning their support of me.”
He’s seen clubs lose sponsors due to their affiliation to the Pride Cup and its organisation, but he says it is easily outweighed by the benefits that all clubs receive when taking part. For every story of pushback there is a doubly inspiring story of the reaction to said pushback and the amount of additional sponsors that clubs find via the program.
It is not uncommon for this Jason Ball to be mixed up with the Jason Ball who played 193 AFL games for the West Coast Eagles and the Sydney Swans, including the 2005 premiership with the team from the Harbour City.
They are often receiving each others accolades.
“Its pretty funny because I’ve been introduced as ‘ex-Sydney Swan’ Jason Ball and he gets letters of congratulations for coming out publicly and is constantly invited to Mardi Gras.”
The two have met and exchanged laughter at this consistent mishap. Alas there is still no openly gay AFL mens player in todays game and Jason believes the number of gay players in the current crop would be lower than expected due to a number of reasons.
He knows how tough football can be for someone in that situation and feels a number of players would often quit before having the opportunity to be drafted, much like Jason did all those years ago.
“There is pressure on them to be the first, when at the end of the day they just want to play football, they don’t want to be defined by their sexuality,”
“Even though I became the first at any level and I get the tagline of the ‘gay’ footballer, I don’t care because I’m not defined by my sexuality – It is a part of who I am, but it’s not who I am and I’m proud to be myself,”
“I know when I was a kid if I had seen the headline ‘GAY FOOTBALLER’ it would’ve helped me a lot, so I am more than happy to be associated with that tagline because I know how much it will help people out there.”
Jason also believes that those in the AFL that do come under the LGBTQIA banner may not even be out to themselves yet.
“The likelihood is that they’re not even properly out to themselves or those close to them yet, so you can’t expect them to come out publicly, because once you’ve lied to cover it up, you have to keep living that lie,”
“To come out is to admit that you’ve lied to a lot of people.”
He believes that we are more likely to see someone like NFL Draft Pick and now CFL (Canadian Football League) player Michael Sam who was openly gay before being drafted into the competition.
“It’s likely that the first openly gay AFL player will come from the next generation where it is much more accepted to be gay. Eventually someone who is openly gay is going to be drafted.”
The current environment is much more welcoming to gay youth. There are 45 Pride Cups across Australia and the message is being sent that sport is challenging homophobia. Jason recounts many a story of players coming out after their club signed up for a Pride Cup.
All those players have seen similar responses that Jason encountered when he first came out to his teammates, that their fears are never confirmed and that their club and team mates embraced them with open arms and they joined the fight against homophobia.
The Pride Cup means a few things to David. First and foremost it means a lot of work for him and the rest of the Yarra Glen committee each year. But secondly it means a lot that his club continually leads the way in this area.
“For the Yarra Glen Football Netball Club it is really important that we continue to support this, because it is a massive community thing here.”
“After the first Pride Cup just walking up the street people would come up to me and go ‘oh it’s just fantastic’ or ‘well done Dave’ and before you knew it a 30 minute shop was taking an hour and a half, but you could tell how proud the community was of the football club.”
Father and son agree that the 2015 edition of the Pride Cup was their favourite. It was the last one that Jason played in (he kicked a ‘rare’ goal) and was one of only two wins that the club had that season in Division One when they defeated the Burras of Warburton Millgrove.
This was also the first edition to include rainbow jumpers. Whilst Jeff Kennett was there as the President for BeyondBlue. Jason had become an ambassador of BeyondBlue in 2013, a long way from the boy who contemplated killing himself when he was 15.
“From the ages of 12 to 15 I was hoping that it (being gay) would go away or that I could hide it, but I realised I couldn’t fight it,”
“So I had three options ; (A) be open about myself but risk being rejected by everyone, (B) hide it and lead a miserable life and neither of those seemed positive for me so I looked at option (C) ending it all.”
Those dark days were the driver for Jason to work in the mental health sector. The isolation and discrimination experienced by the LGBTQIA community has led to incredible rates of mental health issues in the community.
“It’s important to remember that it is not being gay, transgender and so on that leads to negative mental health outcomes,”
“It’s the way that society reacts to and treats those in the LGBTQIA community that causes those outcomes and to fix that we have to work on society being better.”
The 2015 edition of the Pride Cup was not only important for Jason and David because of the dignitaries that were in attendance and the profile it raised, it was important because of the people that had kickstarted it all – Jason’s teammates.
‘The end of that game running off holding the Pride Cup with my teammates absolutely nothing compares to being part of a winning team,”
“No other sport can bring the same level of euphoria from a win that football does and when you combine that with the fact that I’m a proud gay man and I’m running around on a ground with my teammates wearing rainbow jumpers all standing with me and the LGBTQIA community,”
“It was life changing.”
Yarra Glen take on Seville in the sixth edition of the Yarra Valley Pride Cup on Sunday the 5th of May.
To learn more about the Pride Cup head to pridecup.org.au.