While sporting bodies vow to embrace diversity and uphold a policy of maximal inclusion, the fans cheering from the sidelines may have very different priorities. By Russell Marks.

The fans and freedom of speech

Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes celebrates kicking a goal  in 2015, his  final season.
Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes celebrates kicking a goal in 2015, his final season.
Credit: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

As parliament prepares to debate greater protections for religious expression, it should come as little surprise that the row over Israel Folau has spilled into federal politics. What seems more difficult to manage is the ongoing tension between sporting codes and their fans.

Folau wants freedom. Specifically, he wants the freedom to express himself in accord with his own interpretation of the Bible – and that of the Assemblies of God, the international Pentecostal movement he joined in 2011. The April Instagram post that was the final straw for Rugby Australia – and the one it sacked him for – was a paraphrasing of two verses from 1 Corinthians 6.

LGBTQIA people want freedom, too. They want the freedom of maximal inclusion, the freedom to exist in a world in which homophobia is neither expressed nor tolerated by institutions of power. They will support Folau’s freedom to do and say as he pleases, to the point that he impinges on their own freedoms.

Both can find support in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill’s seminal 1859 essay. Mill thought speech and belief had to be absolutely free; Folau’s supporters would agree, at least when biblical bigotry is in issue. But Mill’s position depends on two fundamental beliefs: that mere words can’t cause harm; and that the real world works like a university debating society, where irrational prejudice is always exposed as an unsound basis for good decisions. If Mill was right about these beliefs, Hitler would not have been elected in 1933 and marketing would never work. Rather, LGBTQIA people say homophobia is inherently harmful, so its expression – as with other harms in Mill’s essay – should be restricted.

Rugby Australia agrees. Like other codes’ governing bodies, Rugby Australia has a code of conduct to which it obliges participants to adhere. Unlike the AFL’s code, Rugby Australia’s isn’t specific about the behaviour that would “likely be detrimental to the best interests, image and welfare of the game” and which would allow a code of conduct committee to impose punishments – including a total suspension of involvement in rugby. But the committee that heard Folau’s charge in May was very specific. “When we say rugby is a game for all,” said Rugby Australia’s chief executive, Raelene Castle, following the hearing, “we mean it. People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion or sexuality.”

This creed of inclusion maximisation is shared by the AFL, Cricket Australia, Football Federation Australia, Tennis Australia and every other sporting governance body in the country. But it’s a creed that’s not necessarily shared by fans.

The big contest in Australia is as it has always been: individualistic libertarianism versus a more inclusive social liberalism. In politics, this contest between the two factions of liberal thought is managed through the party system. But increasingly in sport, the factions line up much more awkwardly: while administrations represent one faction, the other is found among fans (and Israel Folau).

When Australian rules fans continued booing Sydney’s Adam Goodes throughout the 2015 season, corporate AFL was clear: it wasn’t on. Goodes, who was raised by his Narungga and Adnyamathanha mother in South Australia, had been named Australian of the Year in 2014. A month later he watched John Pilger’s Utopia and wrote an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, describing how affected he was by mainstream Australia’s silence about the rapes and murders of, and thefts from, his people. Throughout 2014 the right’s culture warriors rained hellfire, and by the following year fans of teams playing against Sydney routinely booed Goodes every time he touched the ball. In May, Goodes responded with a “war dance” towards Carlton fans. The ante was upped. The boos intensified. At the end of the season Goodes, deflated and defeated, bowed out.

The booing persisted despite the efforts, though somewhat belated, of the AFL hierarchy. CEO Gillon McLachlan told fans ahead of a Geelong–Sydney game in August: “If you boo Adam this week, it really can’t be construed as anything else other than racist.” But plenty did boo, egged on by Sam Newman (a former VFL ruck) and broadcaster Alan Jones and others who insisted the chorus of disapproval had nothing to do with race.

Figures such as Newman, the star of The Footy Show’s buffoonery for the past quarter-century, and Jones, formerly one of the Wallabies’ most successful coaches but for 30 years the right’s radio warrior in Sydney, function as conduits for fans who have never subscribed to their respective sports’ corporatising image and their concomitant subscription to the inclusion creeds. Talkback radio, The Footy Show (both NRL and AFL editions), Fox Sports, the Murdoch mastheads’ sport pages, Facebook and other corners of the internet – these are where dyed-in-the-wool fans congregate to talk about their game and what’s wrong with it. They’re like virtual pubs where conversation is broadcast and transcribed. But they’re less and less sanctioned by the corporate governors in charge, which is noteworthy given the pub’s importance in Australia’s (male) sporting history.

And the governors work hard to corporatise. Since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, players have been prohibited from speaking their mind – about umpire quality and code management but also, if their mind is sufficiently bigoted, about the world at large. Australian rules player Jason Akermanis regularly resisted the AFL’s efforts to restrain him; in a 2010 Herald Sun column asking gay players to stay inside the closet, he anticipated Folau’s even more incendiary interventions.

The administrators’ mission could almost be called a civilising one, to convert adherents of one liberal culture to another. The heathen culture to be eliminated is the churlish libertarianism of “I’ll say what I want and you can’t stop me”. There are signs this mission is working. Both editions of The Footy Show were axed by Channel Nine during the past year amid dwindling ratings.

Of course, the liberalism of the corporate administrators hasn’t always been so inclusive. When Nicky Winmar lifted his shirt and pointed to the colour of his skin in front of racially abusive Collingwood fans in 1993, the AFL was hardly a beacon of anti-racism. A generation later, all codes still expect players and fans to participate in the national anthem, penned during the 1870s, which includes the words “we are young and free” (ignoring the rate at which today’s descendants of the oldest living cultures on the planet are incarcerated) and “advance Australia fair” (written when “fair” referred as much to race as it did to equality). The First Nations players who refuse to sing those words before State of Origin matches are aiming for greater inclusion. The administrators, caught in that awkward space between state and truth, are keeping quiet.

But many fans continue to surge into battle in defence of their libertarian understanding of the meaning of “free”. In sport, as in life, the cleavages that divide us rest ultimately on identity, for it is identity that determines the liberalism we’ll fight for. Just how the sports and their administrators play this contest is their greatest challenge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 20, 2019 as "Fanning trouble".

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Russell Marks is an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University and works as a criminal defence lawyer in the Northern Territory.

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