Dr Tim Soutphommasane has been Race Discrimination Commissioner since August 2013. Prior to joining the Australian Human Rights Commission, Tim was a political philosopher and held posts at The University of Sydney and Monash University.
Politics has no place in sport. Let sport be sport. Sound familiar? Well we’ve heard a lot of it haven’t we, the last few weeks particularly, around the NRL Grand Final. There were many who criticized the NRL’s move to have Macklemore perform Same Love and pre-game entertainment but I think we can all agree that it was no repeat of Meatloaf and that the entertainment was a success. Macklemore performed this song, the crowd loved it, and 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 images with a message about equality and inclusiveness.
Does politics have a place in sport? Well I’ve been reflecting on this the last week or so and I’ve wondered to myself what counts as politics? What if the song at the pre-game entertainment this year had been about racism? Would an antiracist song have counted as politics? Would that have been deemed inappropriate or unpalatable? Over in the US there’d been debates about this very question because there you do have political debates about race in sport. You’ll all know about the protests that were kicked off by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year when he refused to stand for the American National Anthem 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 criticized these protests for being unpatriotic. At a rally not long ago he demanded that the NFL bosses “fire these sons of bitches” who were taking a knee and 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 protests. We have seen NFL owners stand in solidarity with African American players who have been taking a 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. In 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 (sometimes) is neutral and impartial, where foes can go at 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 was 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’s never been detached from politics and our purposes as cities or as societies or as nations and in fact 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. Greatness is not about perfection, something Freud may (6:02) be discovering in time but with Muhammad Ali we have a really interesting illustration of how standing up on things like race can enlarge not only sport but also 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 didn’t understand why he had to be put in a uniform and 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.
They’re not words I’ve made up. They’re words of Muhammad Ali himself used. When I think of someone like Muhammad Ali and the test of time and our history judges Muhammad Ali I see what sport can be when it is at its best. Sport is a metaphor for our society. It does stand as a model for our lives. Well, that model should say something about race and inequality as well.
In Australia we’ve not always managed to handle race and sport comfortably or confidently. I think while we’re on Muhammad Ali of how Bert Newton famously had an interview or conversation with Muhammad Ali at a Logies night where in the course of the banter Bert Newton said “I like this boy”. To call an African American man a boy has a certain meaning of course.
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 Dias and who was punished for taking that stand. Next year will mark the 50th Anniversary of Peter Norman’s stand in Mexico City and it would be fitting and appropriate if there were indeed to be a monument erected in the memory of Peter Norman, a champion of antiracism, a defender of human rights, a great Australian athlete.
We see this being repeated through our history in sport. I think of the response to Cathy Freeman when she flew the Aboriginal flag at the Commonwealth Games in the 90’s. I see the division that can be generated by debates about race when there needn’t be division. I 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 caldron and in winning gold in the 400 metres but why was it that that winning of gold and that lighting of the caldron, why was it that those things were so powerful? Well I suspect 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 in sporting grounds where once we would have barely batted an eyelid to a slur or to an insult based on race 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, something that’s been running since 2012, a campaign that aims to empower all Australians 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 and 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 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’ve launched a new community service announcement video. Just yesterday in fact we released two videos that 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.
I want to show you just very quickly one of the videos we put together.
We’ve chosen that scenario because racism doesn’t need to be in your face. It doesn’t need to involve abuse or vilification or violence or the threat of violence. Sometimes it can be more subtle, more insidious and it can happen in very every day 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 very ugly forms, in overt forms and we see this in sport unfortunately. Our very own Ambassador for the campaign, Adam Goodes, endured this in his last year playing in 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. Goodsey had been playing for more than a decade. It only emerged after he became Australian of the Year. It seemed to escalate after he performed an Indigenous war‑crying dance during the Indigenous round of the AFL in 2015.
There has been a lot of reflection on what happened but the sport writer Jake Niall seemed to sum it up pretty well in saying that there can be a particular way that we respond to indigenous athletes in Australia who do speak about race. American scholars have drawn a distinction between challenges 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. The challengers by contrast do precisely that. They do speak out. They do challenge how things are being 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 aren’t indigenous in background. Not long ago Heritier Lumumba participated in a documentary that has been aired on Australian television where he has spoken out about his experiences with racism while playing in the AFL for Collingwood. The response however 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 if you’re sending this message out to those who do have the courage to speak out and come forward, if you’re telling people that they’re going to be cast as unstable or mentally ill if they should dare speak out about racism then we’re not setting a good example in sport and how you deal with it.
There’s going to 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’ve got to put it into practice. You’ve got to give meaning to it. You’ve got to make sure that people are treated with dignity and respect on the sporting field as well as off it and that they’re supported 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 at the AFL took in saying ‘Yes’. I think of what the NRL did and that to me points to what sport can be when it is 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.