The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the tragic death of George Floyd has challenged the way we both operate and function as a global society.
Sporting corporations have not been immune to these societal challenges as competitions were forced into shutdown and have only recently begun to return.
The issue of suppression and race has been acknowledged by sport. The NFL’s decision to reverse its stance on players kneeling during the American national anthem reiterated the important platform sport is able to utilise.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” after the NFL blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during a pre-season game in 2016.
The resumption of the Premier League over the weekend has seen teams featuring Black Lives Matter and NHS logos on jerseys, while players in the NBA lead by Kyrie Irving have questioned whether they should return to the court as games could take away from the issues related to social justice.
The platitudes, though, must be followed up with real change as the issue of racism especially is one that has raised its ugly head continually through history.
Sporting bodies must recognise the important platform they hold and the social responsibility that this entails.
Adelaide United director of football Bruce Djite reiterated this point with a powerful statement on the ABC’s Q&A last week.
“I tell you now, if there was an Indigenous person on the AFL commission or as AFL CEO during the time when Adam Goodes was getting racially vilified, it would have had a different reaction,” he said. “The guy might still be actively involved in the sport.”
Djite emphasised the fact that organisations must now be judged on the actions they take rather than just the words that are spoken.
Former AFL great and media personality Sam Newman’s latest outburst – where he called George Floyd a “piece of s***” and said that AFL players should not be kneeling before games as it is a movement that originated in America and has no relevance in Australia – highlights the work that still needs to be done when it comes to our own national fabric.
Newman’s comments sparked a wave of criticism with Channel Nine and Newman mutually departing company just days after he returned to the Sunday Footy Show.
Heritier Lumumba – the former Collingwood star who has been vocal in the fight for racial equality wherein he claimed he was subject to racist jokes in his ten-year career with Collingwood – came out strongly against Newman.
“Sam Newman is doing exactly what he has always done,” Lumumba said. “He is consistent with his bigotry, unwavering with his prejudice, and unapologetic with his tone deafness.”
Newman’s lack of acknowledgment that the movement in America has relevance here in Australia demonstrates Newman’s and many Australians’ distinct lack of understanding and empathy with our First Nations people.
The ability for sport to enable real change was recently demonstrated through the actions of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, who forced UK prime minister Boris Johnson into an embarrassing u-turn on his decision not to provide Britain’s poorest children with free school meals over the summer.
Sport’s and society’s heartbeat are intrinsically linked, with one not truly existing without the other.
Andrew Abdo – the acting CEO of the NRL – believes for sport to attract new fans it must deliver a product that connects on a deeper level.
“I think if sports want to win new fans and want to connect with society, I think that people want to belong to something that they believe in,” he told Q&A. “I honestly think that younger people won’t tolerate anything less.”
Sport is woven within the Australian psyche and as Brendon Gale – the CEO of the Richmond Football Club acknowledged – it has an important role to play when it comes to dismantling racism within this country.
“Sport in this country is a very powerful social and cultural institution that has enormous traction in society,” he said. “It gives an opportunity to shine a light on these issues.”
This time in history has given sport yet another opportunity to play a leading role in creating societal change.
This change, though, will not come without resistance as has been seen through the far-right political movements, which have continued to rise globally.
Sport must continue to stand up and condemn racist and divisive behaviour as was on display during the Manchester City versus Burnley game wherein a banner flew above the ground, which read: ‘White lives matter Burnley.’
NASCAR have also had to leap to the support of its only African-American driver Bubba Wallace after a noose was found in his garage stall at the Talladega International Speedway. Wallace’s fellow drives took it upon themselves prior to Monday’s race to push his car down pit road and then stood behind him for the national anthem.
Wallace was overcome with emotion and took to Twitter to deliver a message to the NASCAR organisation.
“This is the kind of unified message that is as powerful as it is overdue,” he said. “For too long, this sport trafficked on the fringes of society, not stepping up and not speaking out as racism and racists found a home.”
Sport now must act on its vocal support and invest in a long-term vision rather than short-term platitudes to truly bring lasting and meaningful change to a world that has found itself built on division.