In May of this year Sports Without Borders held its annual conference focusing on discrimination on the sporting field and how ultimately affects society at large. Renown journalist Jenny Brockie hosted a special Q and A panel session with various sports, media and organisational voices asking “What is the cost of discrimination to sport?”
The session began with Hawthorn Football Club star Dermott Brereton's sobering admission that sledging was part of the club's strategy during his playing career. He admitted that 'it was part of it' and he didn't think anything of the sledging until much later in his career. Spurred by the education he received from the ethnic sportspeople around him Dermott deepened his understanding of racial issues, subsequently apologizing to the indigenous players he offended and taking a stand against racial intolerance in the game. As a current commentator of the sport Dermott also added that he now appreciates that he 'has no right' to determine what should be perceived as offensive, something he believes all those in the media have the responsibility to appreciate. Dermott went on to say that if he had remained in his home suburb and had not been exposed to the multicultural environment of the AFL, he 'would probably have stayed the same,' illustrating the ultimate power of sports clubs to provide an educative environment capable of meaningful change.
Former player, now indigenous advocate and Brereton contemporary, Gilbert McAdam spoke about the 'degrading' affect continual racism has on an indigenous player. Gilbert began by explaining his cultural origins, those of his parents and clan in Northern Australia. He spoke of a sureness of cultural identity, borne by the strength of his parents, and having 'never experienced racism,' until his football career started at the age of fourteen. He stated that for another player to use his heritage as an insult went to the core of all he held sacred and was inextricably linked to his identity and place in the world. Gilbert explained that whilst the culture was very different, his fellow players were receptive to his urgings of cultural understanding and believes that understanding of the educative power of indigenous players is undeniable.
Sports inclusion advocate Dr. Paul Oliver explained that the way to increase the beneficial aspects of sport has to be a rise in attention to the inclusive aspects. He highlighted that most clubs now have an awareness of the importance of 'club culture' and an inclusive environment is beginning to be perceived as an important aspect to a club's identity. He urged commentators and press to steer away from continually highlighting the negative aspects surrounding clubs and inclusion and instead focus on the benefits and increased participation, which needs to improve at all levels of sport.
This sentiment was echoed by disability advocate and current CEO of Disability Sports Australia Jenni Cole who stated that there were over 1 million Australians who have a disability preventing them from participating in sports. She stated that most clubs don't create space for disabled participants simply because they view that as 'too difficult,' however Jenni illustrated that her own organisation, and many others like it are there to provide pathways for clubs to be more inclusive if they reach out.
Journalist Rita Panahi highlighted the need for gender equality to be more genuinely tackled in the professional sporting realm and chided organisations for taking a 'tokenistic' approach to a serious issue. Both she and Paul agreed that it needs to be an organizational change, rather than a 'glib' stab at recognition.
LGBTI advocate and former amateur Australian Rules player Jason Ball also spoke of the 'huge' influence acceptance of LGBTI sentiments at the highest level has youths questioning their own identity. He believes education of players at a league level is the only way for players to become more aware and inclusive in their behavior and language.
Whilst there was recognition that the level of accepted racism in sport had declined dramatically there were still many challenges, including acceptance of sexuality, gender and race. Gilbert McAdam concluded with the 'huge challenge' the sporting community as a whole faces to ensure sport is a weapon of positive change going forward.
A full video of the session can be found here.