Sports and politics are two of the most fiercely debated topics in Australian society. To many Australians, your opinion on these subjects is a major component of your self-identity. But for two themes that are in the centre of Australian life, there is still some reluctance to have them intertwined.
On the one hand we have politics, which along with sex and religion, is still seen as one of the few topics we shouldn’t publicly discuss. Along with being one of the most divisive themes in society, it is also inherently a representation of our core beliefs and values.
On the other hand, we have sports, something that although pins fans against each other, is often seen as the one thing that unites us as a country. Unlike almost anything else, sports can bring together complete strangers, regardless of age, religion, skin colour or political views. For some people, anything that breaks this phenomenon and divides this crowd, diminishes the sanctity of the game.
Footy fans shouldn’t be subjected to a politicised grand final. Sport is sport! https://t.co/1uRh4eZ61Z
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR) September 27, 2017
Because of this mindset, it is often the case that whenever an athlete takes a social or political stance, a severe backlash follows soon after. This can leave athletes with two choices: either voice their opinion or continue to be payed.
Society’s preference for athletes to stay silent was encapsulated by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham’s earlier this year. Her commentary followed NBA star LeBron James, voicing his displeasure with President Trump’s administration. In her February piece, Ingraham said.
“Must they run their mouths like that… it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball…keep the political comments to yourselves. … Shut up and dribble.”
‘Shut up and dribble’ — Fox News’s Laura Ingraham to LeBron and Kevin Durant after their criticism of President Trump pic.twitter.com/0BlokQDIIl
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 16, 2018
This line of thinking was encapsulated by one of Michael Jordan’s most famous quotes. As one of North Carolina’s most famous and influential people during the states tightly-contested 1990 senate race, Jordan’s silence on the issues was noticeable. After refusing to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, Michael reportedly stated that his reasoning was that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
That’s not to say he was wrong to not take a side. It’s each individual’s right to decide whether or not they want to voice their opinion. And when you look at the history of athletes who ‘chose a side,’ it is easy to see why many want to stay clear of a debate.
The most prominent example of this backlash in recent times, is Colin Kaepernick. During the 2016/17 NFL season, Kaepernick knelt during the pre-game national anthems, instead of standing, protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Throughout the season more and more players followed his lead despite being met with fierce backlash.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 29, 2016
Despite nearly 200 players kneeling one week, Kaepernick was still seen as the leader of the movement, which most believe to be the reason no NFL team signed him the following year.
Unfortunately, the Australian sports culture gives similar backlash to athletes who speak out on social issues. After winning a silver medal in the 200m final during the 1968 Olympic Games, Australian sprinter Peter Norman stood at the podium in support of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, during their famous ‘Black Power Salute.’
Taking part in this, one of the most famous civil rights moments of all time, ultimately cost Norman his career. He was banned from competing in the 1972 games and was not invited to take part in the 2000 Sydney Olympic celebrations.
A more recent example of this was former AFL star Adam Goodes being repeatedly ‘booed’ during the 2015 season. To many, these boos appeared to be racially motivated, and in response to Goodes publicly speaking out about indigenous issues.
However, it does seem like times are slowly changing. At last years NRL Grand Final, Macklemore was allowed to perform his equality anthem ‘Same Love,’ despite backlash from Tony Abbot, Peter Dutton and many other Australians.
— NRL (@NRL) October 1, 2017
Following this, over a dozen Australian athletes teamed up to create a video urging people to vote yes in the marriage equality postal survey. And this recent increase in social and political stances from Australian athletes wasn’t limited to marriage equality. AFL stars Majak Daw and Aliir Aliir were among many speaking out against gang violence in Victoria.
Although it is good to see more and more athletes speaking up for what they believe in, there are still those who believe the athletes should simply ‘shut up’ about these issues and entertain the fans. Some argue that when athletes do speak up, they are using their fame and notoriety to push a political agenda.
However, critics to this argument often cite the theory of ‘the public sphere’ as a reason for why athletes, and everyone else should voice their opinion. Smith (2003), suggests that having “open, continuous, and informed conversation among the largest possible number of people,” is the best way to build a social consensus that state policy can be based upon. Thus, regardless of the persons occupation, trying to silence their opinion is only pushing us back as a society.
Following the ball tampering scandal that struck Cricket Australia earlier this year, both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten gave statements condemning the actions of the players. Every year come Grand Final weekend MP’s, declare their allegiance to one of the teams and proudly wear a scarf or jersey to the game.
If politicians are allowed to talk sports, why can’t athletes can talk politics? Why is every single Australian entitled to give their opinion on politics, but it is wrong for an athlete to do the same?
Great to hear about Mr Turnbull’s sudden love of footy. The rest of us have been enjoying it for years.
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) April 14, 2016