The tragedy that urged Ian Roberts to publicly back same-sex marriage.

As the nation prepares to receive their marriage equality plebiscite votes in the mail later this week, one major Australian sporting body has come out to openly support the ‘Yes’ campaign, and it’s a big, huge, historic deal that we have one person to thank for.

“There is a place for everyone in rugby league,” NRL Chief executive Todd Greenberg confirmed in a statement on Friday. “We need to treat everyone equally both on and off the field and that’s why we will publicly support the same-sex marriage proposal.”

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Ian Roberts. Source: Fox Sports / Youtube.

The NRL is only the second Australian sporting body to openly state its support of equality, following the AFL in 2014.

Incredibly, Greenberg's on-the-record show of support for the plebiscite may never have come about if former NRL great Ian Roberts - who was the league's first openly gay player - hadn't implored the sport he loves so much to be on the right side of history.

"Either everyone's equal or they're not, and that's what the NRL is saying. They're just being fair," Roberts tells Mamamia on Monday.

"It's about being part of the group and being part of the tribe, and that's the power sport has. Because when you depend on each other on the field, you're all equal. It doesn't matter what your sexuality is."

Having played professionally for 12 years, Roberts says that growing up in a sport that didn't support his sexuality played havoc with his mind for years.

"I wanted to stop playing when I was 18... I knew I was gay and I just didn't see it working at all I didn't see any sort of flexibility in leading a full life," he says. "If everything is sending you signals that that kind of behaviour is not welcome and is to be made fun of, it's very hard to ignore that and to block that out."


Listen: Mamamia's message to Prime Minister Turnbull on the marriage plebiscite. Post continues... 

Thankfully, Roberts persisted and went on to be recognised as one of the greatest players of all time. Sadly, 22 years on from first coming out, though, things are still not as far advanced as they should be.

"It does baffle me but for whatever reason, it [homosexuality] is still a taboo subject when you talk about locker room stuff. Being gay is still seen as, not by all, but by some, as being somewhat less than. But thankfully, the whole environment and the whole landscape is vastly different to what it was when I was playing."

Importantly, though, Roberts says the NRL's support is about more than simply ticking a box or being on the right side of history, but rather about the generational change this will bring about.

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Ian Roberts during his sporting career. Source: Getty.

In particular, it was the death of Queensland schoolboy, 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth, that made Roberts decide to bring his campaign to the NRL.

"This to me is about saving lives. This will save kids lives and that's why this is so important to me personally. I'm a 52-year-old gay guy and I've had a couple of friends die from suicide, which is not an uncommon story for an LGBTQI person. But it shouldn't be like that," he says.

With the NRL now firmly on board, Roberts says he plans to continue writing to and petitioning other Australian sporting bodies to get on board with the 'Yes' campaign and show their support for marriage equality - something he says he'd love to see other sporting fans also do.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud in full below.