Speaking freely in special clothing

26 Jun 2020

 By Professor Graeme Orr

What happens when sport moves from the back pages to the front?

Sport and politics don’t mix. Except when they do, which is often. With sport so integrated into society, it would be strange if political or religious speech didn’t seep into elite sport and seek amplification. It can be provocative and polemical, or humdrum and hokey. It can be actual speech or symbolic communication. But from anthems and military bands to gestures like “taking a knee” or kissing a crucifix, sporting events are suffused with sociopolitical expression.

Sport, of the type that so many of us consume as spectators, is also nothing if not big business. Retailers, like elite sporting organisations, used to be wary of controversies in case they alienated a swathe of their customers. Modern businesses, however, are often keen to position their brands, adapt to new demographics, or promote issues dear to their owners or chief executives. Think of Qantas and marriage equality. Or Ben and Jerry’s and just about any progressive cause.

Between the brands and the fans, what about the stars of the show? How are the players and coaches who actually “do” the sport implicated in this branding, and do they have any freedom to express their own views? What whips and reins do those who control sport — the club managers and league officials — wield?

Take the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in the United States but has evolved and spread to many countries, Australia included. One of its powerful early tokens in the United States involved NFL players “taking a knee” when the national anthem was played before major games. For his troubles, the leader of this protest, Colin Kaepernick, was pilloried by none other than the US president, and hung out to dry by his sport.

Yet the tide has turned. Kaepernick is now a heroic figure and even President Trump says he should be welcomed back. Police at BLM demonstrations are now “taking a knee” in fellowship with demonstrators. When football restarted in Australia recently, both Australian rules and rugby league teams followed suit, in solidarity with the movement.

Read the full article at Inside Story.