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Blood Borne Diseases and Contact Sports

Opinion Piece : 27 April 1999

Last year, Matthew Hall volunteered to his footy club and to the Victorian Amateur Football Association that he had contracted HIV. He still wants to play amateur football and has gone to great lengths to be able to do so. Matt’s courageous fight against the discrimination attempted by the Victorian Amateur Football Association has done Australia and particularly our young an extraordinary service (“HIV footy verdict sets precedent” 24 April 1999).

In our community, participation in sport is a prized sign of belonging, for boys in particular and girls increasingly. Matt’s case put two essential rights for children and young people as well as adults into sharp forcus: the right to involvement in sport and other social leisure activities and the right to protection from health risks.

The Australian Section of Defence for Children International is the local branch of a children’s rights network affiliated with the United Nations. We have read the decision of the Victorian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal and believe that it is correct. It is unreasonable in law for the VAFA to exclude Matt from playing football in order to protect the well-being of other players. 

The Tribunal’s judgment concentrated on the miniscule mathematical chances of catching HIV from the sport. These sums are important but so too is the decision’s quiet and well-informed understanding of the social reality of blood-borne diseases. Of course, HIV is only one of them. Hepatitis C for example is also prevalent, especially among the very drug-using young people that Premier Kennett is rightly keen to keep or reintegrate within our helping and participation networks. 

Sport is a key way of achieving that inclusive aim. Sadly and wrongly though, HIV, Hepatitis C and other related health statuses carry a dangerous stigma. They attract powerful and harmful consequences.

Matt’s difficulties in finding employment show how some in our community still heap prejudice, discrimination and exclusion on those brave enough to be candid.  Matt’s work life has suffered because he was frank in pursuing his sport aspirations. Hopefully there are employers out there that are not so stupid. They should put their hand up like Matt did.

If someone as principled as Matt is bearing the brunt, it is hardly surprising that others who know they are infected are tempted to keep such that knowledge to themselves. Even more dangerous from a health perspective is that social antipathy can lead to people preferring not to find out at all. 

If the Tribunal had decided to uphold the VAFA’s attempt to bar Matt, it would have sent a potentially deadly message to Australia’s young - “Don’t find out! And if you know, don’t tell!”.  It would have encouraged denial and self-loathing. It would have added to the desperate levels of depression and suicide attempts among marginalised young people in our community, particularly young males. 

Instead, the Tribunal ruling properly promotes the implementation and enforcement of infection control measures that work in a real world where these messages of shame are already strong and at work. The decision rightly tells the organisers of contact sports that their procedures and safeguards cannot expect everyone to be as candid as Matt who, for reasons that are rightly personal to him, chose to confront the risks of openness head on.

Australia makes heroes of sportspeople. Matt is one of them and more than that. He has set an example which will be a lifesaver for young people and adults with blood borne diseases who want to play contact sport. They and their families can now expect games organisers to make rules which assume that someone who participates might have a blood-transmissible disease but has not disclosed that fact. Everyone is better protected as a result and individuals need not feel responsible for apologising about their health status, nor take the personal risks of a public stance like Matt did. And let us not for a moment forget that it was not Matt who chose to personally identify himself in the dispute with the VAFA.

Despite his reluctant place in history, Matt may yet be out of pocket for being a hero. Although the Tribunal decided in his favour, it remains to be seen whether he has to pay the legal fees of standing up to what has been found to be discrimination. The costs of his fight for himself and others is yet to be decided by the Tribunal. Under the law, the fact that he won his case does not mean that he automatically gets his legal costs. When the Tribunal determines Matt’s legal costs it will hopefully take account of how the AFL and others have positively received its decision

From a health rights viewpoint, it is disturbing that the VAFA has not ruled out an appeal to a Supreme Court. Further litigation by the VAFA would signal that it does not genuinely care about current players and those young Victorians who will join in the future. Another court case would signal that the Association is putting its head into the sand and does not trust the Tribunal’s findings on medical evidence, or the AFL’s confidence that properly enforced safeguards are sufficiently protective. This was, after all, a tribunal that included a medically qualified member to decide the issue.

If the VAFA’s members are truly concerned about health risks, they must insist that the Association’s money is spent on education of players and their families rather than wasting it on more lawyers. VAFA members can be lifesavers like Matthew Hall by taking this stand. We can never have enough lifesavers and other contact sport associations around the country should follow the logic of the Tribunal’s decision.

[Editorial note: The VAFA did not appeal the Tribunal's decision.]





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