A trio of writers with a special interest in sport and Indigenous affairs lined up to address the topic, Sport: The Great Distractor?, at a panel event yesterday – and quickly agreed that, yes, in the world of sports, social progress severely lags behind broader society.
Author Martin Flanagan, journalist Stan Grant and sports writer/historian Erin Riley were joined by businesswoman Sam Mostyn – who in 2005 was the first woman appointed to the AFL Commission – to consider whether sport is today’s opiate for the masses, or potentially more powerful than governments in bringing about social change.
Mr Flanagan’s latest title, The Short Long Book, focuses on the life and career of indigenous AFL legend Michael Long, and he encountered some very confronting stories behind one of Australia’s greatest sportsmen.
“Michael came from a family in which both of his parents were victims of the Stolen Generation,” he said. “The themes quickly veered away from a sporting biography, and more towards the search for answers about his past.”
Martin Flanagan remarked on what he saw as a “great divide” between progress in social issues within mainstream Australia, versus the reverse in in modern sport. “Change is happening in Australian society, yet in sport people seem to be becoming more sexist, more racist and more homophobic. I am calling it ‘Trumpism’.”
Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri man who is currently the Indigenous affairs editor for The Guardian Australia, talked about the importance of sport in our culture. “Sport is often held in higher regard than anything else in the news,” he said. “Most Australians can hold far more intelligent and well informed discussions about their favourite footy team than they can about politics or current affairs.”
But he warned: “Sport now represents a dark side of Australian culture. While the rest of Australia makes social progress, Indigenous sportspeople are still dramatically underrepresented in sport, and women are almost completely left out.”
Mr Grant said success and celebrity achieved by individual Indigenous sportspeople could make it harder for them to speak openly about social issues. “Being successful can distort the lens in which we view these people,” he said. “It often becomes much more difficult to express subjects that are not sport-related.”
Specifically in relation to the Adam Goodes saga – when the star Swans player was subjected to abuse during AFL games during 2013 and 2014 – Mr Grant noted: “Adam was someone in the prime of his career, however when he became openly critical about the racist culture in sport [there was a] negative affect on his career almost immediately.”
Erin Riley spoke about the vicious backlash when her article about her experiences at the 2013 AFL grand final, AFL has a problem with racism, sexism and homophobia, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I was met with literally hundreds of abusive messages across all my social media pages,” she said. “They were largely sexist, racist and homophobic comments which, ironically, only further emphasised what I was trying to discuss in my initial article.”
A freelance sports journalist and former content executive for the Sydney Swans, Ms Riley found herself treated as an outsider. “Being a woman in a world built and designed for men left me feeling like I was a visitor, and that I did not belong – even though I was a stakeholder, and had worked there a long time.”
She also noted the ever-widening gap between what is acceptable for women in sport, versus what’s acceptable in Australian society. “There is an argument that the female equivalent of sports [events] isn’t as competitive or as entertaining,” she said.
“What is concerning is that these are subjective phrases that are, apparently, perfectly legitimate to use in sporting culture. Can you imagine saying the same thing about women in the workplace, or in any other facet of society?”