In most weekends, in stadiums across Australia, thousands of spectators line the stands to take in the Australian Football League. And on most weekends, they can see Sam Gilbert, a defender with the St. Kilda Saints, arrive for match day wearing a rainbow-striped gay pride beanie.
Mr. Gilbert, 30, epitomizes the modern A.F.L. player: tall and athletic — and mindful of equality. He’s straight, but he joins a pride march every year.
“I want to help,” he said after a recent practice. “I want to be a straight ally and be a voice.”
On Saturday, St. Kilda played in its second annual pride match: an awareness-raising game heavily featuring the signature pride rainbow, including on each player’s uniform. It is just one example of how the A.F.L. — one of the top sports leagues in the world in terms of average attendance, roughly on par with American baseball — has tried to present itself as a force for inclusion.
By some estimates, almost half of the league’s fans are women, and over the past few years, the league has introduced events and matches that raise awareness of breast cancer as well as gay pride and also celebrate the country’s Indigenous and multicultural populations.
Some fans like James Krstic, a St. Kilda supporter, find it all a bit much, arguing that the league is too involved in social issues. “I think a sport is a sport and should remain as such,” he said.
But the league’s push into L.G.B.T. politics comes at a time when Australia’s government is stalled on gay marriage, with lawmakers caught up in an endless debate about whether gay marriage should be addressed in Parliament or by referendum, if at all. And for some activists, the A.F.L. has become an unlikely ally, showing how sports can move faster than politics.
“If the A.F.L. was a Parliament, we’d have marriage equality now,” said Clint McGilvray, who works with the Equality Campaign, a national effort to expand Australia’s marriage laws. “We wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Still, the A.F.L. has struggled mightily with issues of equality. Incidents of racial vilification, sexism, and homophobia have continued to tarnish the league’s image. Recently, a popular player-turned-presenter was accused of transphobic behavior after referring to Caitlyn Jenner as “it” on a popular weekly A.F.L. TV show.
Many players and fans see the league — like Australia itself — as still in transition to a more uncertain future.
So far, no A.F.L. player, current or retired, has come out as gay, even though some players and trainers believe there are several who could. Some argue that that act may be the real measure of cultural change.
“The A.F.L. have never acknowledged that there’s a problem to be fixed,” said Jason Ball, a former amateur footballer who became the sport’s most high-profile gay player when he revealed his homosexuality in 2012. “The fact that no players have felt comfortable to come out is reflective of that.”
On a cold Saturday night this month, old and new versions of Australian masculinity were on display inside St. Kilda’s locker rooms.
“We’ve got to have the balls to go out there and play our game,” an assistant coach barked before a game.
The players wandered around the locker room purposefully, hugging each of their teammates, one by one.
It was not a gay pride-themed game, but among the St. Kilda cheer squad’s oversized pompoms and giant banners, a pair of pride flags waved with each goal.
“The culture of the league is changing,” said Sharon Baynes, a longtime Saints supporter wearing a rainbow scarf. “Hopefully, soon there might be a gay player coming out.”
Shannon Downey, a 32-year-old fan who has played Australian rules football since he was a child, was more skeptical. Reflecting a view that is common among sports fans in the United States, Mr. Downey said the league’s displays of social conscience were mostly a business strategy.
“It’s getting a bit farcical, the number of initiatives they’re pushing down people’s throats,” he said. “They’re running a corporation that’s trying to capture as much of the market as they can.”
League officials insist that their commitment is real. Eddie McGuire, the president of the Collingwood Magpies, is a prominent, divisive figure who has alienated some progressive fans and players with off-color jokes. Still, even he argues that the league is ahead of Australian society on progressive issues.
“I’ll back the A.F.L. and its clubs ahead of every institution in this country: churches, politicians, political parties, businesses, universities — the lot,” he said. “I’m absolutely serious.”
Mr. McGilvray, the marriage equality activist, said he appreciated Mr. McGuire’s enthusiasm, but he noted that “we have many organizations — sporting clubs, religious institutions, corporations, councils — all having a crack in their own way.”
If there were issues that were unresolved, Mr. McGuire added, that was simply because the league reflected the larger context of Australia and human nature. “There are people who are still bigoted,” he said. “Or are frightened. Or don’t understand.” Many players, fans, and officials say that the league’s evolution on sexuality cannot be understood without first reflecting on its fraught history with minorities. In April 1993, Nicky Winmar, an Indigenous player for St. Kilda, was on the receiving end of racist taunts from the Magpies cheer squad. As the match ended, with the Saints victorious, he lifted his shirt in defiance, staring down the crowd as he pointed to his bare skin.
It became a watershed moment for the league. Two years later, a rule banning racial vilification was introduced.
But the years since have been littered with racially charged incidents.
In 2015, Adam Goodes, the most accomplished Indigenous player in the league’s history, spent the twilight of his career draped in boos after he had security eject a young woman who called him an ape.
In April, the Adelaide Crows player Eddie Betts was also called an ape by an opposing team’s fan on a Facebook post that went viral. Last year, Mr. Betts had a banana thrown at him by a fan of the same team.
Mr. Winmar, who altered Australia’s debate on race when he lifted his shirt, said the A.F.L. was on the right path to mending its dividers. The pride game represents an intersection for Mr. Winmar, whose once-estranged son is gay.
“It’s fantastic,” he said in a telephone interview. “Letting people know that they’re safe being who they are, to fulfill their full potential, it’s important.”
Mr. Gilbert of St. Kilda said that on the field, the culture had already changed. Homophobic “sledding,” or trash talk, was now rarely if ever heard, he said.
“People are starting to understand that it’s not right to say — that goes with not just sexual orientation, that’s religion and race, too,” he said.
Australia’s lawmakers continue to insult each over gay marriage (this week, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told his fellow conservatives to “grow a pair” and confront the issue by referendum). But for the A.F.L., melding tackles and bumps with the pride rainbow is increasingly the way to go.
On a recent Saturday night in Melbourne, not a half-hour after Mr. Gilbert arrived in his rainbow beanie, a young family filed into an elevator at Etihad Stadium. Inside, wedged between his mother and older brother, a boy no older than 5 wore a pride beanie from last year’s game.
Emblazoned across the front, it read, “How I want to be.”
By New York Times