Jeremy Finlayson says he is remorseful about his use of a homophobic slur on field during Port Adelaide's win over Essendon | Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Port Adelaide forward Jeremy Finlayson directed a homophobic slur at an opponent during an AFL clash Friday, and it’s beginning to feel like a reckoning moment. 

The incident has been a huge talking point following the biggest weekend of the season so far in what is Australia’s most-watched sport.

All 18 AFL teams came together in Adelaide for a festival of football known as “Gather Round.”

Finlayson helped his side to victory over Essendon in front of over 47,000 fans. Now he is set to be fined and could be suspended.

As for the slur uttered in-game by the Port star, AFL journalist Caroline Wilson, appearing on ABC Sport’s “Offsiders” show, said it was “the worst” possible. Fox Sports later reported: “It’s understood Finlayson used the word “f*****”.”

Finlayson addressed his language in a statement put out by his club, saying: “The word I used is very unacceptable in the game of football. We need to stamp it out and I’m very remorseful.”

According to reports, league officials were listening to what was being said at the time via a microphone worn by an umpire, who was asked by at least one Essendon player to confirm he had heard it.

Finlayson then admitted his offence to club staff during the three-quarter time break. The 28-year-old also insists that at the final siren, he sought out the opposition player and apologized.

The AFL expects to conclude its investigation within a week. Chief executive Andrew Dillon said: “We’ve just got to work through what the accountability will be.”

Some form of punishment is therefore guaranteed — but opinions vary over what that should be.

Is a lengthy ban ‘realistic’?

The president of Port Adelaide, David Koch, was also a guest on “Offsiders” and pointed to a judgement on homophobic language made by the AFL just a few weeks ago.

North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson was fined US $13,000 and ordered to attend LGBTQ inclusion training for calling a St Kilda player a “c***sucker” in a pre-season game. Clarkson also received a two-week suspension but that was wholly suspended for two years.

“I think the benchmark has been set,” Koch told the show’s host Kelli Underwood, although fellow guest Wilson said she thought the punishment for Clarkson had been “too light.”

Underwood put it to Koch that a more appropriate equivalent was a player incident from 2021, when Adelaide Crows’ Taylor Walker directed a racial slur at an opponent on the field.

The AFL suspended Walker for six games, while the fine he received was the same as that imposed on Clarkson.

Koch’s response to that suggestion of a lengthy ban: “I don’t think that’s realistic.”

There has been no official comment from Essendon, although forward Kyle Langford did say during a radio interview Monday: “Any kind of homophobic language is just not acceptable in today’s game or even society… It shouldn’t be any different to any kind of racial slur.”

Meanwhile, Tom Morris, a reporter for 9 News Melbourne’s Footy on Nine, wrote on X: “The AFL’s code of conduct, which is being renegotiated with the AFLPA, stipulates $5,000 [US $3,280] as the max fine.

“But under the ‘Conduct Unbecoming’ framework, there are no parameters. A hefty fine & possibly a multi-week suspension awaits Finlayson.”

What would count as “hefty”? The AFL is one of the world’s top 20 sports leagues by revenue, with an average player salary of around $290,000. A fine of $13,000 would therefore represent around 4% of earnings.

That was the same penalty incurred by rugby union player Jacques Potgieter for saying the word “f**got” on the field in a Waratahs vs Brumbies Super Rugby match in Sydney in 2015.

In comparison, NBA players are on average the best-remunerated athletes in elite sport by far. Punishments dished out for on-court homophobic language in the NBA have varied over the years — the late Kobe Bryant got a $100,000 rap in 2011 for calling a referee a “f**got” while Rajon Rondo was banned for one game for a similar offence in 2015, and missed out on $80,000 in game salary as a result.

Some leagues choose not to disclose fines for on-field anti-gay slurs, often because they are imposing bans as punishment at the same time.

MLS did this with Atlanta United’s Santiago Sosa (three games) in 2022, while the incident which saw San Diego Loyal famously walk off the pitch in a USL Championship game in 2021 in solidarity with out gay player Collin Martin resulted in Phoenix Rising’s Junior Flemmings receiving a six-game ban.

Meanwhile, in Australian rugby league, New Zealand Warriors’ Fijian winger Marcelo Montoya was banned for four games by the NRL in 2022 for saying “get up, you f**got” to an opponent in a match.

The AFL’s head of football Laura Kane claimed Monday that a decision on the degree of punishment for Finlayson would not be influenced by outcomes in other cases.

“In terms of comparing and contrasting, we investigate all these matters individually and we make sure that any sanction is connected to the incident that we are investigating and that we are dealing with,” she said.

‘Targeted work needed’

Michael O’Donnell plays for amateur side UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs in a regional league in Sydney. Last year, he appeared in a TV documentary exploring why there has never been a publicly out gay or bi player — past or present — in the elite AFL.

O’Donnell grew up loving the sport but drifted away from playing it in his teens, in part because of the homophobic language he would often hear. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he returned to playing with the Bulldogs, an inclusive club, but this time as an out gay man.

He believes Finlayson should be suspended “if the AFL are serious about wiping out homophobia from the game.”

Others with expertise in this space in Australia are calling for actions that can help to bring about more substantial culture change.

Campaigner Angie Greene’s father Russell and brother Steven both played in the AFL. She founded a non-profit organization called Stand Up Events to tackle homophobia in Australia after witnessing how her other brother, Brent, felt sidelined as a teenager growing up in a sports-mad family as he struggled silently with his sexuality.

Reacting to the Finlayson incident on Instagram, she wrote of her concerns over “how many people (in and out of the system) still think there is not an issue” with homophobic language in the AFL.

“We truly believe that in order for people to understand the detrimental impact of this language, we need to have safe, open and non-judgemental conversations so that they can genuinely learn and do better,” she added.

Dr Ryan Storr, a co-founder of LGBTQ inclusion in sports organization Proud 2 Play, concurred.

“Second incident this season in AFL,” he wrote on X. “Only way to stamp it out across all levels is an anti-homophobia campaign and strategy – cultures which support + use homophobic language and actions – need targeted work. Will not go away without it.”

For now, the AFL’s integrity unit is investigating. Wilson was also a guest on Monday night’s “Footy Classified” show and was critical of the process, claiming that AFL chiefs had still not spoken to Finlayson.

“They’ve (AFL) allowed this story to drag on as well, because they haven’t done anything about it,” she said.

“They have to stand up and show that they are so supportive of the gay community and that they’re not going to accept something like this.”

Another comparison made by Koch on “Offsiders” didn’t go down well with many of those watching. Referencing the Clarkson case, he discussed the context of how a slur word might be said.

“A 55-year-old coach, premeditated, target the player, walk up to them, is very different to a player in the heat of battle when there was a lot of niggle in the game, the pressure…”

Koch was quick to insist that such language should “not be part of the game” — but again stressed it was “very different” to the Clarkson incident.

O’Donnell picked him up on the comment. “A bit of “niggle” in the game is no excuse — or defence — for homophobic slurs,” he added on X.

“Kids hear this stuff. Gay fans hear this stuff. It’s not acceptable, it hurts, and it’s incredibly damaging.”