AFL had to make a stand on same-sex marriage

Even for an off-field sporting leader who prides himself on being a master negotiator and a dealmaker, the wide variety of challenges and decisions facing Gillon McLachlan in recent weeks is astonishing.

On one hand fielding occasionally angst-ridden telephone calls over the past week from Port Adelaide's chairman David Koch and Gold Coast's Tony Cochrane over Ken Hinkley, on the other facing the task of choosing grand final jumpers, while potentially barring a traditional Victorian club entry into the AFL Women's league next year.

And yet successfully mediating peace and an another international match between Port and the Suns was small fry compared with the thought and planning and ever-so-careful management that preceded the AFL's strategic stand on same-sex marriage unveiled on Wednesday.

It was a stand the AFL had to take even if it seemed belated to some and political interference to others. How could a competition that has marched for the rights of Indigenous Australians, anointed its CEO a champion of change and grappled - albeit clumsily - with respect and responsibility towards women not take a position on behalf of so many of its stakeholders?

If there was ever a question mark over a stand on marriage equality where McLachlan and his team were concerned, all that changed when the AFL formed and embraced and reaped so many public benefits from its one-year-old national women's competition.

AFLW leaders Meg Hutchins and Darcy Vescio stood alongside a group including Ben Brown and Dyson Heppell in a public statement that spoke to the inclusion and diversity and affection that the Prime Minister and a line of his predecessors should have shown the humanity and courage to perform years ago.

But why now? Why not back in 2014 when Geelong did so? Or even in recent weeks when so many other sport bodies took a stand?

McLachlan would say his ultra-careful public style is a means that justifies the end. Why take a strong public stand just to feel good about yourself or your organisation and run the risk of alienating the masses at the expense of your cause? He would say he has done it now to influence the vote and actually achieve victory for marriage equality.

At times in the past this thought process has made the AFL look weak.

On occasion accurately. McLachlan and his chairman Mike Fitzpatrick failed to adequately support Adam Goodes in 2015 for fear of upsetting supporters who didn't believe their booing was racially motivated. The CEO made his peace with Goodes early the following year and apologised to the retiring player in the AFL's annual report but, again, took care not to expand publicly on that apology.

McLachlan's way is to negotiate the correct outcome behind the scenes.

That's how Jobe Watson, figuratively at least, ultimately relinquished his Brownlow Medal and that's why Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast - despite a season's worth of bad blood that reached a crescendo last Friday - will still cross swords in Shanghai next May.

When asked soon after Patrick Dangerfield's controversial suspension whether the reigning medallist would still present this year's Brownlow, McLachlan's response was non-definitive and sympathetic, saying he would discuss the issue with the player. AFL legend Leigh Matthews on the same radio station several days later declared that Dangerfield would be a sook if he didn't.

That's the difference between being the head of a powerful sporting organisation - where politics is rife and nothing really happens organically except over the weekends - and being in a position to tell it like it is.

Even though Wednesday's rewriting of the AFL logo to spell YES involved complex debates, outsourcing, delays and layers of media management and pulled back from one original plan to paint YES on the Adelaide Oval and the MCG at the weekend - the ultimate strategy was to make it look simple - to put forward the AFL stand as one of a united community.

In other words, even though the AFL is one of the last big sporting bodies to take a position on marriage equality it has taken care to present its powerful message in a manner that makes it looks as if that stand was the most natural thing in the world. And McLachlan has made it clear in recent days that, privately for him, it truly is.

As a master dealmaker who strives for outcomes with actions and not words, he now stands just a little closer to his chairman Richard Goyder, who took a major commercial risk first in 2015 and again in March this year on behalf of his group Wesfarmers.

And a little further away from a succession of Australian governments who have utterly failed to demonstrate wisdom or leadership on this crucial and - for so many Australians - heartbreaking issue.

When Goyder signed on to the corporate campaign in March so did a number of major sporting organisations, but not the AFL. McLachlan would argue that he has done so now because he is looking for a win and in this situation it's all about impact and the timing.

Geelong took the first stand on same-sex marriage on 2014. The Western Bulldogs and Sydney were among a number of clubs standing strongly behind the "yes" vote last week. Carlton, one of the inaugural AFLW licence holders, put out a press release to say they would not take a position on the vote.

In the end it was incumbent upon the game to stand up for not only what it believed to be right but for a significant new section of its competition who are currently prevented by law from marrying in Australia. And thank heavens it has now embraced the influential social position it long ago carved out for itself and done so.

The story AFL had to make a stand on same-sex marriage first appeared on Brisbane Times.

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