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Sport: for profit or the public good?

September 22, 2010

In early 2010 the ABC political program ‘The Insiders’ showed a clip from the ‘The Footy Show’ in which AFL players were asked to name five Australian prime ministers. Predictably, many failed.  The answers provoked a mixture of horror and amusement from the panel members and it cemented the reputation football players have for being a bunch of meat-headed fools. But is that reputation deserving?

Certainly, to be a top level AFL player requires intelligence as well as skill. Perhaps the answer is that sportspeople risk a lot in being outspoken in their personal opinions about politics and an artificial wall has been erected that separate sports and politics.
Sonny Bill Williams was once voted the most hated men in Australia because he stood up against  his “cattle-like” treatment at his Rugby League Club. Anthony Mundine has also been heavily derided for speaking his mind on political issues. Nearly everyone remembers the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, but few remember that those who did the salute, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were subject to death threats and endured financial strain because of it.  Carlos’s wife ended up committing suicide due to the pressure.

The reception that greets politically aware sportspeople sends a clear message to all sportspeople, “Don’t speak out or otherwise you’ll suffer”. So, is it any wonder that sportspeople turn off completely from politics, knowing it can and will often lead to trouble? Sportspeople are actively discouraged from thinking about politics, to the extent that many of them can’t even name the Prime Minister, and instead are taught to be a (well paid) cog in a highly oiled machine.

When we hear the phrase that sports and politics shouldn’t mix, it seems to be one sided. Sportspeople shouldn’t get mixed up with politics but rarely, if ever, is it said that politicians shouldn’t mix with sport. No major sporting event goes past without a politician there handing out a trophy or hobnobbing with sporting officials because they understand the popular hold sport has on the consciousness of most Australians.

So, politics and sports obviously do mix, the question becomes what sort of politics predominates? Watch any sporting event and it is clear that corporate politics dominate nearly all sporting events. Corporations have an almost complete free-reign when it comes to sports to do as they please and they, unlike sportspeople, don’t get criticised for using sport to promote their own message, which is: buy our product.

High-profile players usually become appendages to this type of politics and become available for all sorts of advertising campaigns. In response, left-wing people generally assume that sport is a bastion of conservatism or passivity that can’t be challenged. But history says otherwise.

Professional sport isn’t naturally conservative; at times it has be used to electrify public opinion. We only need to look at how Muhammad Ali’s stance against the war in Vietnam provided a massive boost for the anti-war movement as a whole and how his stand had an effect on popular awareness to oppose the war.

When Billie Jean King destroyed Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes Tennis match in 1973 it advanced the Women’s Liberation Movement and proved that women athletes should be paid as well as men.

So, there is a constant battle over sport occurring, will it be run so that private business can enlarge their profits or should it be run for the public good?

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