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Why Sport Should Have The Balls To Tackle Politics

If popular sporting organisations don’t lead the way on social issues, who will?

20/10/2017 3:26 PM AEDT | Updated 20/10/2017 3:26 PM AEDT
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The AFL is kicking goals in more ways than one.

It seems many Australians believe sports organisations are becoming more political by the day. And they just can't cop it.

This week the AFL rejected transgender footballer Hannah Mouncey's bid to enter this year's AFLW draft based on their belief she would have an unfair strength advantage against her opponents.

It's triggered another round of debate about the social and political minefield sport now walks, with off-field issues often dominating the sporting discussion on a weekly basis.

Last month the AFL came out in favour of gay marriage and, in doing so, changed the AFL logo outside their Dockland's head-quarters to 'Yes.'

At around the same time the NRL came under fire from many who claimed the game was being politicised by US Rapper Macklemore's performance of his chart-topping song 'Same Love' at the NRL Grand Final. The problem for many, of course, it that the song is about marriage equality.

Over in the US, NFL players have been kneeling during the National Anthem to protest against police brutality and racial inequality, which has infuriated President Trump to the point he's called for NFL owners to fire these protesting players.

Michael Zagaris via Getty Images
The San Francisco 49ers kneel and stand together during the anthem prior to the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

At home, others have taken a similar disliking for our biggest sports organisations taking sides on social issues. Sam Newman vented his frustrations on The Footy Show, slamming the AFL over its public support for gay marriage and claiming the AFL had no right to get involved in politics.

Similarly, radio commentator and columnist Tom Elliot stated he doesn't attend the footy 'to receive a lecture on trendy topics of the day', believing footy should be a weekend escape from weekly worries. He reckons the AFL should fix the game before trying to save the world.

But surely these people have not just noticed the mix between sport and politics now? In reality, sports have been political for hundreds of years.

Organised sport was largely built on politics. Many sports historians have argued modern, organised sport came to prominence in Britain around the time of industrialisation, when capitalist owners wanted to ensure their workers were participating in organised and safe sports on the weekend. It was in their interests for the workers to be fit and healthy and to have vented their frustrations on the sports field so they'd be ready and willing for work again on Monday morning.

Throughout history there's been blatant political and social acts of defiance from sports stars that have generally done far more good than harm for society. Think Billy Jean King and her fight for gender equality on the tennis court. Think Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Think Nelson Mandela embracing the historically white national rugby team to help unite a divided country in 1995. Think Nicky Winmar lifting his St Kilda football guernsey to defiantly point to the colour of his skin in front of a hostile crowd at Victoria Park. It was a moment that led to far-reaching reform in the AFL in respect of racism in the game.

STR New / Reuters
South African President Nelson Mandela shakes hands with Springok captain Francois Pienaar after their team defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg in this June 24, 1995.

The fact of the matter is that sport has always been political because it is a microcosm of society. Sport deals with the same issues we do, but it has to do it in a far more public way. We now live in an age where every athlete and fan has a voice and a multitude of social media platforms to be heard. We live in a time where young people no longer look to politicians or other historically powerful institutions, such as the Church, for moral and social guidance.

Instead, they are increasingly captivated by sport and sports stars. As such, sporting organisations have become not just increasingly popular, but increasingly powerful. They often have to make social and political stances because if they don't, their athletes and fans will anyway. Many fans, who are captivated by sport and their favourite athletes will listen to them more willingly than they'll listen to their Prime Minister. This is nothing new, but in a time of heightened, saturated sports coverage, it has been exacerbated.

Sports organisations don't exist to be political, but they now can't avoid it. And this could be a good thing. For considering the apathy many young Australians have for politics and politicians, if popular sporting organisations don't lead the way on social issues, who will?

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