Andrew Webster: Todd Greenberg and NRL will save lives with marriage equality stance
OPINION: Last Tuesday, I sat in a Kings Cross cafe at a table across from Ian Roberts, who at 52 is still a massive unit capable of snapping rival Queensland forwards in half.
He was torn. He had penned a letter to NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg imploring him to publicly endorse same-sex marriage, but wasn't sure about sending it.
"I'm worried about him saying no," Roberts said. "No message at all would be much better than a rejection."
Roberts sent the email that afternoon. He wasn't expecting a prompt reply because this was the first week of the finals.
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But a response of some sort was needed, and soon. Last week, the High Court dismissed a legal challenge to the postal survey. Ballots will be mailed out to millions of Australians this week.
On Friday, Roberts' inbox pinged. It was Greenberg. He said he would be endorsing same-sex marriage in the Sunday newspapers.
The chief executive's swift response left Roberts speechless and in tears. Greenberg took more time deciding what to have for lunch than whether to back marriage equality.
At a media conference on Monday, he was asked about the reaction.
"Nothing but positive," Greenberg said. "The game has a small number of values and one of those values is inclusiveness. It's an easy thing to write on the wall, but it needs to be demonstrated in actions."
He was then asked if the NRL was making a "political statement". It was a predictable but valid question.
For some time now, the same-sex marriage debate hasn't been about same-sex marriage.
It's about "religious freedoms" and "political correctness". It's about the "gay lobby" run by the "gay activists" and — a new personal favourite — the "loudmouth rainbow fascists". You will all love rainbows and love them well because we say so!
The same-sex marriage debate is no longer about basic human rights, about partners having the same legal rights as a married couple, about telling the confused teenager that, no, there is nothing wrong with you, there is a place for you in this world.
It's no longer about people.
"It's certainly not a political statement," Greenberg said. "What it says is that rugby league allows everyone to make their own decisions but ultimately as a sport it's a game for everybody."
The cheap line from club bosses about Greenberg is that he's a politician but his public support for marriage equality has nothing to do with political correctness, with messaging, with spin. Many fans argue that he's got better things to do.
"It's because it's the right thing to do," Greenberg says.
And because rugby league has a long way to go. Just as it has helped set important standards around racism and domestic violence, it can do the same with homophobia.
A week or so ago, a post popped up in my Facebook feed.
A mate was sitting under the scoreboard at Leichhardt Oval watching the Wests Tigers play the Warriors. He was there with two mates. All three are gay.
They sat next to a couple and their two children. The five-year-old boy wore a retro Tigers jumper and my mate's friend told him how good it was.
The father joined in the conversation, all going well … and then the mother interrupted.
"Move the kids over to this side," she said. "I don't want them sitting next to those pedos."
The NRL says it would have handled a complaint about an incident such as this in the same way it deals with racial abuse.
It shouldn't be tolerated at all. Just as calling an indigenous player a "black [expletive]" would no longer be accepted at a match, neither should this.
Roberts still hears the odd taunt in the street — "Roberts, yer f.....!" — although it's usually from the other side of the road with passing cars in between. He laughs them off.
When we met last week, he couldn't insist enough that none of this was about himself. He was writing about the countless number of young people who kill themselves each year because of confusion about their sexuality.
"What does same-sex marriage have to do with youth suicide?" fumed one reader in a letter to me this week. "That's drawing a long bow."
It has everything to do with it and this is why.
In the 1980s and '90s, footy was everything to me. I loved the Dragons, the NSW State of Origin team, the State Bank Big Game, Peter Kelly, Brad Fittler's left-foot step …
I loved footy but I hated myself. In absolute silence, I devised ways to commit suicide if anyone ever discovered the dirty little secret that I was gay.
If the people who ran the game then publicly declared its support for same-sex marriage, they would be declaring that I was OK, too.
There's better things for Todd Greenberg to do? I can't think of anything more important.
* Andrew Webster is chief sports writer for the Sydney Morning Herald.
- Sydney Morning Herald