The AFL is standing firm in its support for marriage equality against a concerted attack by politicians, conservative lobbyists and some of its own members, as the stoush over same-sex marriage enters the sporting arena.
A long-time supporter of changing the law, the AFL officially backed a "yes" vote this week, briefly replacing the logo at its Melbourne headquarters with the word "yes" and declaring: "We are a leader, whether people like that or not."
The intervention evoked wide-ranging support but also internal and external criticism as individuals, schools and corporations come under increasing attack for expressing their views on same-sex marriage in the postal survey.
AFL House in Docklands had to be evacuated on Thursday after it received a threatening phone call - however, the league stressed no reason was given for the threat, and police quickly gave staff the all-clear to return to work.
Critics of the AFL included Liberal senators Zed Seselja and Eric Abetz, businessman and former Carlton Football Club president John Elliott and conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, who branded the league's leadership "bullies".
The Coalition for Marriage, the umbrella organisation leading the "no" campaign, also condemned the sport. Spokeswoman Monica Doumit said everyone was free to have their say but it was "surprising ... that executives would seek to take a position on behalf of an entire code".
She said some players, staff and supporters would vote "no" and "it is curious that [executives] would choose to ignore them and advocate for a particular point of view".
A small number of clubs have ducked their issue, while Carlton, Hawthorn and Fremantle clarified their position to say the issue was one of "personal choice".
Despite the blowback, AFL spokesman Patrick Keane said the AFL stood by its position and would not engage further with critics.
"The AFL has stated its position on where the game stands. All other people are equally entitled to have their position," he said.
A fired-up Eddie McGuire, long-serving Collingwood Football Club president and media personality, strongly defended the AFL and lashed out at "gutless" politicians for burdening Australia with the postal survey process.
"The reason the AFL and the football clubs have become a bit more of a lightning rod for social issues is because we've got such gutless politicians who cannot make a decision," he told Triple M radio on Thursday.
"We shouldn't be having this plebiscite. The federal government should have made a decision - that's what they're getting paid for. We have politicians who stand for nothing other than the next election, that's why people turn to the AFL."
Mr McGuire, a supporter of same-sex marriage, said trusted institutions such as the Catholic church and others "have let us down so badly that people in the community turn to their football clubs now for direction".
The AFL would have been "kicked from here to eternity" and branded "liars or cowards by omission" if it hadn't acted on its long-standing support for marriage equality, he said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also defended the sport and credited the code with contributing to the debate "without personal invective". And Swans star Lance "Buddy" Franklin posted his "yes" vote on Instagram with the caption: "Because I believe in equality."
Other major sporting associations to back same-sex marriage include Cricket Australia, Netball Australia and the NRL, whose chief executive Todd Greenberg declared the code's support a fortnight ago "because it's the right thing to do".
Sporting codes were not the only organisations to experience a backlash for throwing their weight around in the political arena: corporations, including Alan Joyce's Qantas, have copped it from federal ministers over their support for marriage equality.???
On Thursday, Business Council of Australia boss Jennifer Westacott told the ABC she had been in a same-sex relationship for more than 30 years but it had never been fully accepted or legitimised by society.
"I've spent my whole life feeling like an outsider," she said. Businesses employed millions of Australians, valued diversity in the workplace and were "entitled" to have their say, she said.
"It's not fair to say to business 'it's OK to speak out about gender equality, women in leadership ... but it's not okay to talk about marriage equality'," Ms Westacott said. "I don't think people can have it both ways."
with Ebony Bowden