Wanderers not doing enough to fight homophobia, Matildas striker says

Michelle Heyman says the continued online display of the fan group’s offensive banner ‘kind of breaks my heart’

The failure of Western Sydney Wanderers to tackle online homophobic material among fans is “a joke”, Matildas striker Michelle Heyman has said, as images of an offensive banner continue to be shared from the club’s supporters’ social media accounts.

The banner’s resurgence online “kind of breaks my heart”, Heyman said.

At the inaugural Pride in Sport awards on Friday, the vice-captain of the Australian women’s cricket team, Alex Blackwell, called on sponsors and football’s governing body to be tougher on homophobia.

It needed “action not words”, she told Guardian Australia.

The supporters’ banner, unveiled in an A-League derby game against Sydney FC in February, depicted Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold performing oral sex. It was condemned as homophobic by Football Federation Australia, resulted in a $20,000 fine and led the University of Western Sydney to pull its sponsorship of the mens’ team.

Western Sydney handed down 18-month bans to 14 supporters, and chief executive John Tsatsimas said the club was committed to monitoring homophobic behaviour at matches and on social media.

But on the eve of the awards, images of the banner were still being displayed on social media by the club’s official supporters group, the Red and Black Bloc. An image of the banner was also the pinned tweet on the group’s Twitter account until it was removed late on Thursday.

Heyman said she was disappointed to see images still circulating.

“For this to still be online after three months, it’s just a joke and something like this should never happen. It’s very disappointing that not enough has been done.”

Blackwell called on the club to do more to combat homophobia and said it was up to its sponsors, such as the NRMA and National Australia Bank, to demand greater action.

“The fact that it is a club-sanctioned supporters group means that the Wanderers have put their trust in those people to uphold the values of their brand and their club and that hasn’t happened. I would expect the Wanderers would be disappointed.

“Their action has to be swift and I don’t believe that to have been the case. To have a pinned tweet remaining there for far too long, there needed to be action coming directly from the top. To take a strong leadership position that we are a sport for everyone and will not tolerate prejudice.”

Football Federation Australia (FFA) was nominated for an award for “tackling homophobia in sport”. In a media release, its chief executive, David Gallop, said the organisation was “committed to taking a leadership role to ensure that football is an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone”.

But Blackwell said it was “not good enough to say that we’re an inclusive sport, it’s about action”.

“It’s about how people on the ground feel and how they experience their involvement. The FFA need to make it explicit that we don’t tolerate prejudice. It doesn’t actually take action. It can’t just be words.”

Joseph Roppolo, the president of Sydney Rangers FC, Australia’s first gay-inclusive men’s football club, said the banner’s continued prominence was disappointing, given how the Wanderers had handled the initial controversy.

“We feel Western Sydney did take appropriate action for banning their fans, to me that was an appropriate response,” he said.

“They also did some really great, proactive work around the rainbow laces campaign. The upsetting thing is that three months since that homophobic banner, the Red and Black Bloc haven’t taken those images down off their social media.

“I’m hoping the Red and Black Bloc will realise that these images are deeply offensive and very dangerous. I think it’s a damning indictment that the club still haven’t been able to pull their official supporters group in line, and if they can’t, maybe the sponsors will.”

The AFL won most of Friday’s Pride awards, including sport organisation of the year. Former player Jason Ball won best out role model, and St Kilda won most inclusive club. Rugby union player David Pocock won the ally of the year award.

Heyman said that while the FFA had always supported her, they could learn from the AFL.

“We’ve only just started the Pride in Sport campaign. It’s only been a few months, so we definitely need to follow in bigger footsteps, like how the AFL have done amazing things. Maybe FFA can learn from other codes.”

In a Facebook comment on Thursday, the NRMA said it wanted “to reiterate we are saddened by the incident involving the offensive banner at the WSW game in February, and want to make it clear that we do not support this kind of disgraceful behaviour”.

“We have once again spoken with the club to express our disappointment and to remind them of our high expectations for the game and fan behaviour.”

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