Is sport the new opiate of the masses? Not exactly, according to Stan Grant, Martin Flanagan and Erin Riley. These three eminent writers and lovers of Australian sport concluded as much in their session, Sports: The Great Distractor?, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on Thursday morning.
They concurred that sport has the ability to drive progress, but more often than not it shows what is possible, rather than how things really are, especially when applied to the lives of Indigenous Australians.
Hosted by Sam Mostyn, President of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the sold-out event kicked off under perfect conditions. Ms Mostyn first acknowledged the Cadigal people, the traditional owners of the land, before inviting writer Martin Flanagan to start the conversation.
“Sport is the most important thing that doesn’t matter,” Mr Flanagan said, to the audience’s amusement. However, he said sport, particularly Australian Rules football, had “opened windows” for many Indigenous Australians. He said that the AFL, while at times an agent of social change, can also reveal our darkest side, reminding us of the disparity between white and Indigenous Australians.
He juxtaposed the recent plight of Adam Goodes with that of Michael Long. Adam Goodes was thrust into the national spotlight last year when he was relentlessly booed by opposition fans. These ugly events ignited rancorous national debate about racism and reconciliation.
In his most recent book, The Short Long Book, Martin Flanagan tells how Michael Long quietly revolutionised Australian sport by refusing to let a racial insult pass during the Anzac Day match between Essendon and Collingwood in 1995. The story is one of hope and reconciliation. Damian Monkhorst, former AFL player and one-time antagonist of Long, is now one of his most ardent supporters.
Stan Grant, who has been at the Festival with his recent book Talking To My Country, told of his dismay at returning home after several years abroad “to see we’re fighting old battles”. The plight of Adam Goodes, he said, was an eye opener. Goodes’ success was, in itself, proof of how far Indigenous Australians had come but his predicament reflected an inability of some Australians to see Aborigines as human beings.
According to him, this could be explained, in part, by what the public doesn’t see. While it is easy to see and recognise talented Indigenous people who are successful and good at something on their own terms, it doesn’t tell the whole story. What Australia doesn’t see, he said, are the hardships experienced by people like Adam Goodes. “His success masked what it really took to get there,” Stan Grant said.
In agreement with Martin Flanagan’s assertion that sport is not immune to society’s illnesses, he expressed his displeasure that racism “went from the front page to the back page”. Mr Grant, a former CNN anchor, drew parallels between Goodes’ experiences and his own experiences as an Indigenous Australian.
He said the success of Indigenous Australians is palatable to the Australian public provided they acquiesce to racial slurs and inequality. He referred to his own reluctance to talk about race lest he be howled down for it. He called it “the price of acceptance”.
Sports journalist Erin Riley experienced similar conundrums while working for the Sydney Swans. She says that during her time there, the players and management wanted her out of sight and mind. Coincidently, one of only two Swans players who knew her name was Adam Goodes. Ms Riley, a contributor to From The Outer, shared her experiences of sexist abuse and threats in the aftermath of a verbal altercation she had with belligerent Hawthorne fans.
Unlike her fellow panellists, Ms Riley said she was more sceptical of the ability of sport to effect social change. She advocated for more commercial TV coverage of women’s sports to get the “straight, white, maleness”. However, all three panellists were in agreement that sport, as witnessed at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, can unify people although it does not of itself bring about equality.
Stan Grant poignantly asserted that having successful Indigenous athletes doesn’t change the fact that Aborigines still die younger than the rest of the population and it doesn’t change the fact that they’re over-represented in prisons.