There is an old adage that sport should be separate from politics. The same-sex marriage debate in Australia has revived that view, as many sport bodies have publicly advocated a position on the matter.
To critics, this means that sport – whether via organisations or athletes – is taking on roles and asserting views that are beyond its remit.
Sport, they insist, is meant to be an escape from everyday life; embedding politics in sport deprives it of fantasy. More seriously, perhaps, “progressive” sport organisations are accused of engaging in a form of social engineering that deprives athleticism and fandom of their innocence.
In order to be valuable, therefore, sport must be a “neutral” space, eschewing all political judgements and asserting independence from external influences.
Sport taking sides
Australian sport history is replete with examples of organisations embroiled in political issues of national significance.
During the 1960s, South Africa’s racially exclusive sport policies were made obvious in cricket and rugby: by 1971 the Australian Cricket Board had broken ties, but in the same year rugby union authorities invited the Springboks to tour.
During the 1999 republican referendum campaign, Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh and iconic bowler Shane Warne both publicly advocated for the “yes” vote, while Mark Taylor was noncommittal. A host of household names declared themselves “sports ambassadors for the republic”, but there were proponents of the “no” campaign, such as horse trainer Gai Waterhouse.
More recently, Australian sports have openly committed to a range of sociopolitical causes they regard as just, such as support for the Indigenous “Recognise” campaign and the “Pride in Sport Index” that benchmarks inclusivity for LGBTQI people in sport.
Like other areas of society, sport engages with day-to-day challenges of diversity and opportunity, whether that be for people with disabilities, those from non-English speaking backgrounds, or with women in the sport workforce.
Sport organisations pronounce core values and goals; the instruments to achieve them are policy. Policies are about vision, strategy and impact; all of that is steeped in politics.
To use a sporting metaphor, the Turnbull government handpassed to the public the question of whether same-sex partners ought to be entitled to marry.
The ensuing debate has been more than robust; it has often been rancorous. In an era of social media, the best and worst of people is magnified.
Some 765 organisations, from Qantas through to Coopers Brewery, have declared their support for the “yes” campaign. This includes several faith groups.
The “no” campaign is being driven by at least 30 organisations – in essence, religious conservatives that wish to preserve the marital status quo. The positional splits are shaped overwhelmingly by progressivism vs traditionalism and secularism vs religiosity.
For many large companies, though, the open embrace of gay and lesbian staff is normative. PwC, for example, reports that it has been “twice named Australia’s top LGBTI employer by Pride In Diversity”. For PwC, therefore, support for same-sex marriage is an extension of their commitment to LGBTI staff.
Sport and secular values
In recent weeks a host of major sport organisations, clubs and athletes have announced a position on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. The overwhelming view is support for a “yes” vote.
That said, some sporting bodies have preferred not to commit, asserting that the vote is a personal matter for individuals. Both of these stances have attracted commentary – which is no surprise. This is politics and democracy after all.
Pundits may wonder why, for example, the Australian Olympic Committee has not committed either way, while the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) is staunchly for a “yes” vote. Both organisations are umbrella bodies for numerous Australian sports.
I have yet to hear of a sporting body advocating a no vote, though a few well-known sports stars – Margaret Court and Israel Folau – have indicated that position in line with their evangelical religious beliefs.
Australian sport organisations, especially those at the elite level, are secular bodies. This means their values are not beholden to religious organisations. They are hardly expected to discriminate against an employee’s religion, and they have no purpose to elevate one type of faith over others.
The same principle of inclusion applies with sexuality (even though sport, historically, has rarely celebrated LGBTQI athletes). What this means in practice is a secular workplace involving people with different, even competing views about wider social issues.
But, to use the APC as an example, it is at least clear to employees what that organisation’s position is on same-sex marriage. Much the same, of course, if they were an employee of a conservative religious institution. Fair call.
Authors: Daryl Adair, Associate Professor of Sport Management, University of Technology Sydney