It’s been a big few days in Australian sport, with the AFL and NRL grand finals dominating the long weekend.
Amidst the celebration and beers it was incongruous to think that in the weeks prior both codes had come under fire for taking public stances in support of the same sex marriage ‘yes’ campaign.
Without intending to oxygenate the polemic further, it’s important to point out that the mixing of sport and politics is not always a bad thing.
Sport + Politics
History has shown that sports diplomacy can at times positively influence and unify more successfully than any other tool in the politicking box.
Perhaps the most famous case in point – Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a country divided by fifty years of apartheid.
Embracing the green jerseys of the Springbok’s, South Africans of all colours celebrated the win, putting aside decades of institutionalised racism more effectively than any other measure to date.
Mandela said, “Sport… has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. … It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Taking heed, footballers across the US have recently been taking part in kneeling protests during the national anthem in response to police killings of black Americans, garnering support from many clubs and thrusting a fresh global spotlight on the issue.
Bringing the chat back a little closer to home.
Anti-racism stances taken by St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar, Essendon’s Michael Long and Sydney’s Adam Goodes and LGBT activism by the first openly homosexual footballer Jason Ball, have all had powerful remedial effects, with the sport commanding social change via their annual indigenous and LGBT rounds.
If the AFL cannot openly support the ‘yes’ vote, does it follow that the LGBT round should also be scrapped? I daresay those who support the former would find it more uncomfortable to support the latter.
On one hand, mandating this type of ‘issue cherry-picking’ is the antithesis of free speech.
On the other hand, instances of individual sportspeople declaring their social and political views is quite a different proposition to organisations taking a stance, particularly when individuals represented by that organisation (staff, players, clubs and paid-up members) may have opposing views.
Clearly, sport and politics are not always the most compatible of bedfellows.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that the Olympic Games charter expressly prohibits the games from being used for political, religious or racial propaganda (although it takes only a cursory glance through history to see that the Olympics has been far from successful in transcending politics).
The ‘Yes’ Campaign
So what’s my take-away on Australia’s footy clubs supporting the “yes” campaign?
Ours is an inherently political world, and Australia is an intrinsically sporty nation. As such, it’s impossible to hermetically seal sport from our socio-political conscience.
However, instead of using time, energy and media space pointing fingers at those who express a viewpoint (whether they be individuals or organisations), let’s use the ensuing noise to ignite educated discussion on the real issue at hand (in this instance, same-sex marriage).
Let’s keep our eyes on the ball, not the man, you might say.