You are here

Racism in sport: An old adversary that never goes away

Copyrights: AFL Player Adam Goodes, Photo: Timellis09/Wikipedia

Racism in sport: An old adversary that never goes away

We should acknowledge the institutional and structural racism that has pervaded Australian sporting history for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and still exists across different sporting codes at the elite and grassroots levels.

The Black Lives Matter protests and movement have re-stoked the flickering embers of racial equality all over the world. However, echoing the sentiment that racism occurs everywhere else but on my front door, a Guardian Essential poll this week showed that most Australians believe there is institutional racism in the US, but not in Australia. This is despite there having been at least 437 deaths recorded in Australia since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended in 1991.

The poll result led former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane to tweet:

We can only improve on racism if we can see the problem. Too often there is denial or deflection. This shows us we have a long way to go, and need to look in the mirror.

Some of the loudest voices speaking up against racism in recent days have come from the sports world. International sports stars including Serena Williams, Le Bron James, Raheem Sterling and Lewis Hamilton have raised their voices over police brutality against black people in America, and the protests have naturally segued into the historic and current institutional racism and racial discrimination in sport.

In Australia, many leading players from professional sports have voiced their support for Black Lives Matter, including former Australian Football League (AFL) player and Chair of the Indigenous Player Alliance, Des Headland (a descendant of First Nations Australians, as a Noongar man), saying Australia was no different to America when it comes to people of colour - “that is, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to suffer . . . in terms of blatant racism [and] institutional issues”.

In striking similarity to former NFL San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, AFL champion and proud Adnyamathanha man, Adam Goodes, used his platform to speak out against crowd abuse and was booed out of the game by the crowd. Goodes (an Australian of the Year) has since released two acclaimed documentaries, The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, which cover his experiences of racial vilification which forced him out of the game he loved.

Sport you see, has been both a blessing and curse for Indigenous people in Australia. Much like wider Australian society, it has been a double-edged sword of opportunity and exclusion, in hope and disappointment, tolerance and discrimination. Godwell (2000) explains sport as an institution is neither separate nor isolated from the whole of society:

. . .  just as there is racism in Australian society so too is there racism within Australian sport. Just as there is racial discrimination within Australian society, so too there remains discrimination because of race within Australian sport. Just as there are stereotypes that reinforce racist conceptions of peoples in Australian society, so too there exist stereotypes that reinforce racist conceptions in sport.

In spite of this, some of the most prominent areas of legislation and injustice in sport have grown out of struggles over racism. For example: the period of apartheid sport in South Africa (present and evident from the eighteen century until 1994 at least) which gave rise to the slogan that you ‘cannot have normal sport in an abnormal society’; the practice of colonialism in many parts of the world which formed the backcloth to sporting relations between many countries; the popularity and coverage of sport as a vehicle for protest through campaigns and activism as evidenced by the black power protests at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games (Dagas & Armour, 2012); and legislation such as the Race Discrimination Act and Racial Hatred Act in Australia which provide a legal framework to investigate and act against racism in all areas of society, including sport; plus codes of conduct in sport focused on racism, such as the AFL’s trail-blazing Rule 35: Discrimination and Racial and Religious Vilification Policy.

Despite views to the contrary, racism is clearly embedded within Australian sporting culture and has played a major role in denying Aboriginal people their place in the sporting arena:

Racism remains a major issue within Australian society and . . . despite the staggering achievements of Aboriginal sporting success in recent decades, it has not changed the horrific social inequality that impacts upon the great majority of Aboriginal lives today.

(Maynard, 2014, p. 81).

A close look at the sport industry reveals undeniable patterns of minority segregation. Although minorities are overrepresented as players, they continue to be underrepresented as coaches, athletic directors, general managers, team owners, and in other positions of leadership and control (Lapchick, 2003).

Much of the overt exclusion and racism has declined since the 1970s and 80s as sporting organisations have moved to address this behaviour through stronger policies and programs. But in some respects, this racial discrimination has simply evolved and found a new forum online and via social media in which to fester.

With so much attention on the issue of racial injustice at present we should acknowledge the institutional and structural racism that has pervaded Australian sporting history for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and still exists across different sporting codes at the elite and grassroots levels. However, we should also point to the recent programs, campaigns and education in this area that are working to counter this intolerance and prejudice, and illustrate how they are crucial in influencing harmful social attitudes and reinforcing positive behavior.

As the world looks to bounce back following the COVID-19 pandemic and take heed of the human rights lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement, hopefully greater awareness and education on racism in sport will be a positive side outcome that we can all take away.

Dr Paul Oliver is an advisor to Australian sports and governments on safeguarding, inclusion and integrity matters. He was the Adjunct Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Curtin University (2017-18).


Article type



Dr Paul Oliver


Thursday, June 11, 2020 - 19:49