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Sport as an Enabler of Human (Children’s) Rights - Craig Foster

Children's Children's Rights
Craig Foster speaking

Child Safe Organisations – Launch of the National Principles

 21 August 2019

Sport as an Enabler of Human (Children’s) Rights

Craig Foster


Putting the child at the centre of sport, now there’s a novel idea. One that presents a direct challenge to the win-at-all-costs mentality. As we will find out today, that cost is can be a very high, human one, and often a child’s future.

Hello everyone, I’m delighted to be here to acknowledge an important milestone in the protection of the rights of young Australians and to speak with you about the power of sport to contribute, educate, lead and create important conversations in this field.

We all watched the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse 1 with deep horror, revulsion and even surprise. Could this really be going on in Australia? How had we dropped the ball, so to speak, so badly. We would all agree that a country’s treatment of its children and young people, the innocent, and all in positions of vulnerability especially those placed in our institutional care, is an inviolable measure of its social value, and thankfully the Australian Human Rights Commission in conjunction with the Prime Minister and all State Premiers and Acting Premiers have taken the discussion forward in an effort to ensure all our kids are provided with safe environments in which to prosper and thrive.

Well done to Megan Mitchell, our National Children’s Commissioner, for advocating so strongly for new policy and these new principles of safe organisations as a positive response from the never forgotten wreckage of too many lives.

Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 2was ratified by Australia in 1990 3, the rights contained within are less well known across society than they might be. Children have rights that must be respected and upheld, and here I’d argue that sport can and must play a fundamental role in education and awareness.

The convention has 54 articles of course across life, survival and development; an education that enables the full development of potential; to be raised by, or have a relationship with their parents; to express their opinions and be listened to, and; in our context today, protection from violence, abuse or neglect.

Let us now turn to the power and obligations of sport, and how these rights might be articulated through a field in which children are so naturally drawn to and which has

such a substantial impact on their development and social integration. The flowering of potential, the right to thrive, to recreation and play, to achieve and excel are well known. But the right which precedes them all, to joy, freedom of personal expression and growth is far less pronounced in Australian sport in the pursuit of medals, titles and glory. Nor are we alone.

The pursuit of honours has dangerously trumped the provision of safe environments across all sport which are child-centred, enable a lifelong love of sport and that make winning subservient to protection, enjoyment and self-fulfilment.

All of our sport needs to reconsider our underlying approach in this regard. Let us begin with the right to play, before looking more closely at the right to excel.

If we agree that sport is an enabler of health, mental and physical wellbeing and a promoter of community, friendships, support networks and the advancement of human potential, what right does a child have to participate in their chosen sport? Do they have a right to be included, to be given a ‘sporting chance’?

Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that:

‘Children have the right to live a full life. Governments should ensure that children survive and develop healthily.’

Does a full life include sport, which further is known to dramatically increase overall physical health and psychological wellbeing?

Article 23 extends special protection to children with a disability who equally have a right to ‘a full and independent life.’

Article 15 protects a child’s right to:

‘meet with other children and young people and to join groups and organisations’.

In Australian society, one of our most fundamentally significant social groups, whether a team or an entire community, is formed through sport.

And, particularly for our purposes today, Article 31 dictates appropriately that all children have the:

‘right to relax, play and join in a wide range of leisure activities.’

My question to our sporting bodies, and the Federal and State Governments and Territories, is what impact does the escalating cost to play have on these inherent rights of all children? Have we, in transferring the responsibility for the provision of sport programs largely to private providers, allowed the profit motive to trump the right to participate, such that the cost to play has become prohibitive for many in society? New arrivals, disadvantaged communities, impecunious families today not only will find high financial barriers in their way but, should they demonstrate talent and desire to achieve in sport, these costs are likely to drastically escalate. And how greatly are we restricting the ability of our indigenous children to participate and build a life of great potential, even as we celebrate those who demonstrate their extraordinary talents?

From a personal perspective, I had the gift of growing up in Lismore, NNSW where I was able to play a multitude of sports and to excel at one at very little cost to my parents. Had we needed to pay thousands of dollars at every turn, I too would have been excluded from being able to achieve at an international level. Where would my rights to play have been then? Participation brought so much more however, it brought families together, broke down barriers between communities, built understanding of others and facilitated lifelong friendships on which we can rely in times of need.

When did sport become such an industry that to swim, play tennis, football or any other sport required a minimum financial threshold and became such a high hurdle for millions of families in Australia today?

The identification of talent and expression of potential is also a right. Each child deserves an environment in which they have an equal opportunity to excel, where selection processes are objective, non-discriminatory, freely available and transparent. Many potential sporting careers, an opportunity at a life of immense challenge in the pursuit of excellence, at breaking new human barriers and thresholds and to represent one’s country in international competition are compromised at the early stages through talent identification which is subjective, and we should lead the world in changing this.

But sport is a pursuit of happiness, of self-fulfilment firstly, and everything else comes a distant second and our whole ecosystems of play, training and competition should reflect this reality. Australians love to win, but every child must be given the chance to do so while having the time of their lives, finding their own way, in their own time and being valued for who they are.

What happens, then when the pursuit of success supercedes the rights of the child, or when appropriate safeguards are not in place? We have seen some abhorrent examples of the mistreatment, exploitation and abuse of children, even in very recent times.

In the UK football environment, horrific stories of child sexual abuse and the preying on at least 23 young male players have come to light in England at Chelsea FC.4/p>

In the Olympic context, the 2016 sexual abuse case of over 265 female US gymnasts, primarily minors at the time of perpetration came to light following the courage of those who exposed the exploitation by a team physician over a period of decades 5. This case is ongoing and has led to the sports law and sport governance fraternity globally questioning its own adherence to, protection of and participation in a sports environment in which these crimes could have been suppressed for so long, despite repeated efforts by the athletes themselves.

And just earlier this year, an investigation in Canada uncovered over 600 convictions for sexual abuse of minors by at least 222 amateur sport coaches across 36 sports over the past two decades. 6 No sport, or country, it appears, is immune.

Like the Royal Commission, sport has had to ask, why didn’t we listen when the young people spoke up? Why did the system shut them down? How did we allow the voices of our most vulnerable to be lost, leading to more children being harmed?
Everyone in sport needs to reflect on whether we have created an environment in which children feel able to voice their concerns, a critical right and expressed in:

Child Safety Principle 2: ‘Children and young people are informed about their rights, participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously’ and

Child Safety Principle 6: ‘Processes for complaints and concerns are child focused’

But while examples of sexual abuse rock us to the core and make global headlines, there are far more common forms of abuse of young athletes which occur every day, particularly in elite development environments.

In my own sport, and having coached both mid to late teen, elite females and males in recent years and seen firsthand the young players’ experience across the range of sports, school and talent development programs, it is clear that the drive for success can override due concerns for:

  • Over-training during years of critical physical growth and development;
  • A lack of adequate education for coaches in managing players of all genders;
  • Creating a respectful and productive training environment across the diverse range of cultural, linguistic, religious and sexual diversity of society;
  • The potential for body shaming and psychological abuse of young female athletes; and
  • An overwhelming prevalence of environments in which young players do not feel able to voice any concerns. And, crucially, in which parents feel unable to do so without competitive repercussions for their children.

Sport would do well to adopt a process of surveying parents and young participants regularly to understand their experience. Perhaps even more so in elite training environments, where the pressure not to speak up is suffocating, and where those in positions of authority have an inordinate power to make young dreams come true.

Sport has a duty to put every child, and young player at the heart of policy, principles and practice, and this launch today is an important message step in this cultural change.

The field of sport and human rights has developed quickly in recent years, particularly regarding the human rights impacts of major sports events and following the awarding of the FIFA World Cup 2022 to Qatar which brought to light the appalling treatment of migrant workers, and today we see the relatively new Centre for Sport and Human Rights in Geneva under Chair, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Sports and Rights Alliance which includes Amnesty International, the International Trade Union Confederation and Transparency International, among others and major sports implementing Human Rights policies including FIFA.

These positive steps extend to children’s rights, as the world of sport awakens to the need for protections and processes across the diverse range of the child’s experience from their first contact with sporting organisations.

It is pleasing to see the launch as recently as last month of FIFA Guardians, 7the new child safety program for all of football’s 211 Member Federations in collaboration with its Child Safeguarding Expert Working Group including UNICEF and the Council Of Europe to promote a safe, inclusive, enjoyable and respectful environment for the hundreds of millions of children that play the world game.

This policy is founded on five core principles:

  1. Ensuring the best interest of each child;
  2. Respecting and promoting children’s rights as per Convention on the Rights of Children;
  3. Applying its principles to all children and without any discrimination;
  4. Safeguarding children, as part of everybody’s responsibility;
  5. Defining specific roles and responsibilities within each sport organization, to ensure that all concerns are reported and dealt with immediately in accordance with stated procedures.

The program provides for every step from an audit of child involvement and risks to policy, implementation, communication and promotion, monitoring and review. This program is in line with FIFA’s statutory commitments under the FIFA Human Rights Policy to promote and protect all internationally recognised human rights, a movement that is just coming to life within Australian sport and which has the potential to both identify and mitigate adverse impacts and to maximise the positive social impact of global sport.

Further to this movement, athletes themselves have recognised the importance of protecting the next generation and providing greater safeguards than today’s

professional sportspeople were allowed. World Players United 8, the global athlete’s representative body with over 85,000 professional athlete members, has its own Declaration on Safeguarding the Rights of Child Athletes with the 6 principles of Enable, Prevent, Protect, Design, Listen and Uphold.

Today’s launch of the ten principles that will serve to underpin our recognition of, support for and protection of children across every field of Australian life and which recognises the particular needs of those most vulnerable including Torres Strait Islander and Indigenous Australian children and the importance of understanding and respecting cultural diversity across our diverse national fabric.

Finally, sport can play a crucial role in magnifying this discussion. Our children have a need to better understand their rights and sport has a huge role to play in bringing these to life. Our most prominent athletes can play an essential role here and this policy, alongside the sport and human rights movement is the blossoming of an exciting journey for all in sport.

So let us be leaders, then, to move forward in a positive way from a process that shocked Australia to its core to realise that we let down so many children whose right to the fullest realisation of their potential was severely compromised and ensure that we look after those in our care, provide safe and protective environments for our children to grow, prosper and excel. Whether within sport, or without.

My compliments to Megan and her team, to all agencies and Ministers involved and may children of every age, background, religion, gender or sexual orientation have an equal, respectful and safe environment in which to fulfil their true human potential.

Craig Foster
Former Australian Football International (Socceroos) Broadcaster
Amnesty Australia, Refugee Ambassador Australia Committee, Human Rights Watch
Advisory Committee, Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Member, Australian Multicultural Council
Sport and Human Rights Advocate


  1. [1] www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au.
  2. [2] www.unicef.org.au/Upload/UNICEF/Media/Our%20work/childfriendlycrc.pdf.
  3. [3] www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/childrens-rights/publications/un-childrens-convention-and-australia-1991.
  4. [4] www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news/chelsea-sexual-abuse-historic-eddie-heath-dario-gradi-apology-a9043576.html.
  5. [5] www.cbsnews.com/news/simone-biles-gymnast-says-usa-gymnastics-failed-to-protect-her-from-larry-nassar-sexual-abuse-2019-08-08/.
  6. [6] https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-02-experts-discuss-sexual-abuse-sport.html
  7. [7] www.fifa.com/development/fifa-guardians/#web-07.
  8. [8] www.uniglobalunion.org/sites/default/files/imce/world_players_declaration_on_safeguarding
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