The world of professional football may still be very homophobic and there are no out gay professional players, but that’s changing, according to two Toronto Argonauts who have come out as allies, vowing to help change the culture from within.
And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Right now, the eyes of the Canadian football world are on Toronto, which is hosting the 100th Grey Cup final next weekend. The home team will be in the finals if they win against the Montreal Allouettes Nov 18.
Xtra caught up with the Argos Nov 16 at a practice at the Roger’s Centre. Joe Eppele, the team’s offensive lineman, and wide receiver Mike Bradwell, say homophobia is still deeply embedded into the sport, but they think this is slowly changing.
“Statistically speaking, there are gay and lesbian athletes out there,” says Eppele, including on the Toronto Argonauts.
So, if a gay teammate was to come out, Eppele and Bradwell want them to know that they will be in their corner.
“Unfortunately [homophobia] is still a reality for teams,” Eppele says. “Much of it stems from that stubborn, jock mentality that some guys still hold onto in sports. I think people are starting to become more open minded. It’s a slow progression, but a progression nonetheless.”
“If more [gay] athletes feel comfortable in the locker room and are willing to come out about the issue, then I think people who are younger in the sport will feel comfortable admitting it as well.”
Bradwell says Toronto may soon see the Argos marching in the Toronto Pride Parade. “Why not? We’re a pretty diverse team. We’re accepting of everything, so why not?”
On Nov 20, the Argos will meet students from across the GTA at Yonge and Dundas Square for the 100th Grey Cup Festival Bullying Prevention Day. The team invited You Can Play to discuss homophobia in sport, says founder Patrick Burke. Burke says it’s a big step for the whole team.
“It’s more than just a couple players, the management is reaching out to us and we will be doing work with the entire Argonauts organization, both at Tuesday’s event and going forward,” he says.
The event is part of the Argo’s Huddle Up Bullying Prevention Program, which is now in its 12th year. The program gets players like Eppele and Bradwell into schools to speak to youth about ways to stop bullying before it starts, and empower students who may be the target of bullies.
“Athletes go to schools and share their stories and struggles with bullying, and we try to provide the students with outlets that they can contact for support,” Eppele says. “Mainly we try to let them know they are not the only ones going through this and things do get better.”
Sometimes, Eppele says, players get questions from queer youth.
“It’s not something we treat differently. We try to give them advice just like we give anybody else. We try to provide them with people they can reach out to.”
By coming out as allies, Burke says, the Toronto Argonauts are joining a growing movement of teams and players involved in the You Can Play project. Since the project started in March, Burke says hundreds of players, representing nearly every professional sport, and college sports, have joined the movement to publicly declare themselves as LGBT allies. Many have appeared in videos assuring, “If you can play, you can play.”
“It’s nice to see football players stepping up on this,” he says. “This is happening in both the CFL and the NFL. Players are stepping up be allies to their teammates. We’re very grateful when any player in any sport steps up.
“By speaking out, these [Argonauts] give confidence to that guy in the locker room right now, whether he comes out in the next five or ten years, or next year. Hopefully that gay player sees that the Argonauts, and his teammates, are a good organization to play for . . . I think it’s commendable.”
Burke says athletes see the damage caused by homophobic bullying, particularly for youth who suffer from depression, abuse substances and consider suicide.
“Over the last five years there’s been this big wake-up call, like ‘we gotta get our shit together.’ Now it’s a matter of getting everyone involved,” he says.