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Sport, politics and society

Race Race Discrimination

Speech to the 2017 Diversity and Inclusion in Sport Forum
6 October 2017

Edited transcript

Politics has no place in sport.  Let sport be sport.

Sound familiar? We've heard a lot of it, haven't we, over the last few weeks, particularly around the NRL Grand Final. There were many who criticised the NRL's moves to have Macklemore perform ‘Same Love’ as pre-game entertainment.

But I think we can all agree that it was no repeat of Meatloaf, and the entertainment was a success. Macklemore performed his song; the crowd loved it. He ended with a puff of rainbow smoke and also with a message about equality for all.  And on the screens at ANZ stadium the NRL also showed a message about equality and inclusiveness.

Does politics have a place in sport? I've been reflecting on this for the last week or so. I’ve wondered: what counts as politics? What if the song at the pre-game entertainment this year had been about racism? Would an anti-racist song have counted as politics? Would that have been deemed inappropriate?

Over in the US, there have been debates about this very question, because there you do have political debates about race in sport. You all know about the protest kicked off by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year – who refused to stand for American national anthems before the game, and took a knee in protest at racism, injustice and brutality.  He has since been joined by many other players in the NFL and indeed by athletes in other sports.

President Donald Trump has criticised these protests for being unpatriotic. At a rally not long ago, he demanded that the NFL bosses fire any ‘son of a bitch’ protesting against racism.  What was interesting was the response of the NFL owners and others involved in American sport.  Coaches in the NBA have spoken out in support of the protest.  We have seen NFL owners stand in solidarity with African American players who have been taking the knee.

The idea that politics has no place in sport has a long history. It's part of conventional wisdom, but it's not historically accurate.

It involves a certain ideal of what sport involves that, to be sure, appeals to us. It's the idea that sport is pure; that sport is where we go to escape from politics and from the travails of our lives and society.  Sport is that place where the lines are clearly drawn, where the rules are clear, where the umpire is neutral and impartial; where foes can go at it but, at the end of the match or contest, shake hands and become friends. That is our picture of sport.  And when sport works it does bring people together.

But we must remember that sport has always had politics involved.

You go back to the ancient Greeks and what they did with the Olympics. The Olympics performed a public and political purpose. It was quite common, in fact, for the Greek city-states to declare political alliances timed with the Olympiad. The Olympics were used by ancient politicians to exercise dominance over their rivals. Religion was also involved in ancient sport. Priests made sacrifices at Olympic Games.

So sport, in this sense, has never been pure. It has never been detached from politics and our purposes as cities, or as societies, or as nations.

And sport is enlarged when politics enters the picture.  Think of the greatest: think of Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali wasn’t the greatest because he had a perfect record in the ring, because he didn't have a perfect record. He had defeats, quite a number. If anything, the defeats only made him greater. Because greatness is not about perfection. With Muhammad Ali we have an illustration of how standing up on things like race can enlarge not only sport but society.

Muhammad Ali famously objected to the draft during the Vietnam War.  He said he had ‘no quarrel with them Viet Cong’. He said he did not understand ‘why he had to be put in a uniform and be sent 10,000 miles to drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, not when so-called Negroes in Louisville were being treated like dogs and being denied simple human rights’.  When I think of someone like Muhammad Ali and the test of time, and of how history judges Muhammad Ali, I see what sport can be when it is at its best.

Sport is a metaphor for our society. It stands as a model for our lives. Well, that model should say something about race and inequality.

In Australia we have not always managed to handle race and sport comfortably or confidently. I think, while we are on Muhammad Ali, of how Bert Newton famously had an interview or conversation with Ali one Logies night - where, in the course of an onscreen interview, Burt Newton said: ‘I like this boy’.

We’ve seen it more directly with Australian athletes too, and not necessarily those who come from minority backgrounds or who have black skin.  I think of Peter Norman, the great Australian sprinter, silver medallist in 1968, who stood in solidarity at the medal dais [with Tommy Smith and John Carlos] and who was punished for taking that stand. Next year will mark the 50 year anniversary of Peter Norman’s stand in Mexico City. It would be fitting and appropriate if there were indeed to be a monument erected in the memory of Peter Norman, a champion of anti-racism, a defender of human rights, a great Australian athlete.

But we see this thing repeated throughout our sporting history. Think of the response to Cathy Freeman when she flew the Aboriginal flag at the Commonwealth Games in the ‘90s. Think of the division that can be generated by debates about race when there needn’t be division. You would have thought we could all stand united in opposition to prejudice and discrimination, and united in defence of human rights.

There have been some bright spots, though. Cathy Freeman, years later at the Sydney Olympics would, of course, inspire all of us in lighting the cauldron and in winning gold in the 400 metres. But why was it that that winning of gold and that lighting of the cauldron were moments that were so powerful? I suspect that it was because it involved some political meaning as well. It spoke not only just to our interest in sport but to our interest in our nation.

In recent years I’ve been encouraged by some signs of progress in sport on race. It has been a good thing to see more people stand up to racial abuse and racial vilification on sporting grounds. Where once we would’ve barely batted an eyelid to a racial slur at a game of footy, these days it has become more common for people to respond and take a stand.

That’s been the message of our Racism. It Stops With Me campaign, which has been running since 2012. The campaign aims to empower all Australian to speak out and to stand up when they see racism.

Over the years, Australia’s sporting heroes have played a prominent role in this campaign. Back in 2013, in partnership with Play by the Rules we had a collection of leading athletes join in sending a message on racism. In 2014, we had Adam Goodes in sending a message on behalf of the campaign – he was our ambassador. In 2015 and 2016, we had videos from the AFL Players Association, among many others in Australian sport.

This year we have launched a new community service announcement video. Just yesterday, in fact, we released two videos which deal with racism in public places.

Our message, again, is a very simple one, about the personal responsibility that all of us can take on racism. It’s a responsibility we all have because racism diminishes not only those who are on the receiving end or who are the targets of racism, it diminishes all of us as members of society.

[Playing of video]

We’ve chosen that scenario because racism doesn’t need to be in your face. It doesn’t need to involve abusive vilification, or violence, or the threat of violence. Sometimes it can be more subtle more insidious and it can happen in everyday places, such as in the workplace, in a lift, at a bar, on a bus. But everyone can always make a response.

There are times, however, when racism does indeed emerge in ugly forms, in overt forms. We see this in sport, unfortunately.  Our very own ambassador for the campaign, Adam Goodes, endured this in his last year playing the AFL. It was sad to see him being subjected to such booing and abuse on a regular basis. And it was clear that this didn’t just emerge from nowhere – after all, Goodes had been playing for more than a decade without being booed. It only emerged after he became Australian of the Year; it seemed to escalate after he performed an Indigenous war cry and dance during the Indigenous round of the AFL in 2015.

There has been a lot of reflection on what happened. The sport writer Jake Niall summed it up pretty well in saying there can be a particular way that we respond to Indigenous athletes in Australia who do speak about race. American scholars have drawn distinction between challengers and bargainers with respect to African Americans. The bargainers are those who prefer to keep their head down, who don’t try and challenge the status quo.  Challengers by contrast do precisely that: they speak out, they challenge how things have been done.  In the case of Adam Goodes, challenging how we think about Indigenous history and how we deal with racism seemed to lead to him becoming a target of racism and abuse.

I think, as well, of how we deal at the moment with those who speak out on racism who are not Indigenous in background. Not long ago, Heritier Lumumba participated in a documentary that has been aired on television, in which he has spoken out about his experiences with racism while playing in the AFL.

The response from some in the AFL has been abominable.  The focus has been on Heritier Lumumba’s mental health. Aspersions have been cast upon his state of mind. It would have been more honest and more decent for there to have been acknowledgement that racism continues to be a problem. Because you are sending this message to those who do have the courage to speak out and come forward: if you are telling people that they’re going to be cast as unstable or mentally ill if they should dare speak out about racism, then you are not setting a good example in sport on how we deal with it.

There need to be some hard and challenging conversations about race, if we are serious about getting diversity and inclusion right in sport. We need to understand that having festivals celebrating diversity isn’t enough. It’s not enough just to say that you like diversity. You have got to put it into practice. You have got to give meaning to it. You have got to make sure people are treated with dignity and respect on the sporting field, as well as off it. It’s important when they do have the courage to speak out and speak up on behalf of others.

But there is some hope. Again, I think about the footy the last few weeks. I think of the stand the AFL took in saying ‘yes’. I think of what the NRL did. That to me points towards what sport can be when it’s at its best. Sport should be a place where everyone in our society should be comfortable in their own skin. Sport should be a place where we can defend the idea of equality and dignity.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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