Batting for the other team

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 8, 2012). Every issue, my column “Life S’port” will tackle a different sporting concept. Stay tuned to Knockin’ on Kevin’s Door for a 2012 Life S’port wrap-up.

I’m straight. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just how I was born, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Over the summer, however, my fellow straight friends and I don’t come across as being particularly heterosexual. Sure, we do lots of manly stuff like going to the cricket, talking about the cricket, and playing backyard cricket. But we are also all madly in love with a 37-year-old batsman named Brad Hodge, a Victorian legend who has spent the past decade hitting our hearts for six.

Like us, Hodge is also straight. But we don’t let that trivial fact get in the way of a good time. From the second tier of the Great Southern Stand, my mates and I have offered standing ovations – and the occasional love confession – for many of Hodge’s 30,711 career runs.

We ogle over his delicate strokeplay, wolf-whistle whenever he fields the ball, and discuss how legislating same-sex marriage – and polygamy – could be a mechanism for making Hodgey our collective spouse.

I’m not quite sure what evokes this passion. Perhaps in the absence of the fairer sex, our communal testosterone goes into overdrive. Perhaps we are all closeted homosexuals, finding a safe route out of the heteronormative paradigm. Or perhaps there’s something inherently exhilarating about the cricket code that makes us so eager to behave out of character.

But it’s not just cricket. And my friends and I aren’t the only ones. Intimate same-sex behaviour – or homoeroticism to use a synonym – has long been a critical ingredient of sport, both on and off the sporting field.

Take the rugby scrum, for instance. This set play sees sweaty beasts lock arms and heads in an orgy of body odour, enabling a little man to burrow his way underneath them to grab a ball. The curious thing about the scrum is that it is phenomenally useless; for years, union fans have been pleading for the scrum’s demise. One can only presume its sustained existence in the rule book has to do with the secret thrill it gives hormone-fuelled competitors.

Sports + trick photography = homo-eroticism

Then there are sports like wrestling, where it’s customary for half-naked actors to fondle each other to the ground. Opportunistic photographers love events like this, their sneaky snaps making otherwise faithful husbands appear disloyal to their loving WAGs. Fittingly, cyberspace is littered with similar images, each one mocking sport’s split personality. But not all of these are the product of trick photography. Just ask the St Kilda football club.

Outspoken intellectual Jason Akermanis shared his insights on homoerotism in a 2010 Herald Sun op-ed. Speaking in relation to the AFL, Akermanis noted that “in an athletic environment, the rules are different from the cultural rules for men; never in a mall will you see two straight men hugging, arse slapping and jumping around like kids”.

The fact that there are no publicly gay AFL footballers arguably gives Akermanis’ words some credence. Then again, the forthright opinions of men such as him might be the very reason why homosexual footballers are reluctant to publicly reveal their sexual preference.

DikiLeaks, circa 2010

There’s also the possibility that not a single AFL footballer is gay. On numbers alone, this would contradict research that shows that anywhere between 0.3% and 10% of a population identifies as homosexual. However, if we’re to believe the archetype Aussie armchair expert, footy is the domain of the hairy-chested hetero bloke, whereas the film, theatre, and soccer industries accommodate the queerer ones.

It seems downright contradictory that overt homoeroticism has become so acceptable within relatively homophobic sporting cultures. The irony is not lost on gay suburban footballer Jason Ball, who suspects that straight men might behave this way to “reaffirm their heterosexuality”.

“Masculinity is built on the foundation of what it’s not – i.e. not being a girl, and not being gay,” Ball told Farrago. “I think straight males want to make it overtly clear that they are ‘joking around’ and that they are not actually gay.”

To throw a spanner into the mix, they say the only difference between a Christian and an atheist is that the latter believes in one less God. Perhaps the distance between homosexuals and athletes is just as fine; romantic attraction to one member of the opposite sex might well be the defining differentiation.

But before we get suckered in by another theory, it should be noted that homoeroticism and gay identity are not one and the same. According to the Kinsey Report, many men and women like to dabble in a bit of same-sex tomfoolery without wanting to bat for the other team. Just as women have reclaimed the night, men have reclaimed the comrade grope. We’ve also made bear hugs a symbol of manliness, and have desensitised tears insofar as they are shed during a grand final.

As a straight man with a signed Brad Hodge cricket bat beside my bed, I find this conclusion reassuring. My Hodge obsession doesn’t necessarily negate my straightness, after all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.