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Politics and sport don't mix — unless donations or sponsorships are involved

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

Sport is a reflection of society and attempting to suppress a song about love is a very political move, writes John Passant.

IT IS THE TIRED old catchcry of every conservative: sport and politics do not mix.

Right on cue, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott spewed forth his version of this lie, prompted by the announcement that American rapper Macklemore was going to sing his hit song 'Same Love' at the National Rugby League Grand Final.  

Great free speech advocate that he is, Mr Abbott called for the song to be banned from being sung at the Grand Final. 

True to form, what Abbott said about there being no room for politics in sport is bullshit. Sport is political. It is a reflection of society. Attempting to suppress a song about love is very political.

In today’s world, at the elite levels, the game – whatever game it is – is a commodity. It doesn’t matter what the actual sport is. It could be Aussie rules, or rugby league, or soccer. The important thing is that whatever elite sport it is, it is a vehicle for profit for broadcasters, the particular sport’s administration and some clubs.  

Some of this wealth flows back to those who create it, the players — but not the fans. For fans, ticket and catering prices are exorbitant and have increased at rates far outstripping wage increases.

These same fans are bombarded with gambling and alcohol advertisements that help feed the profit monster that is their sport and reimburse the broadcasters. Elite sport has normalised gambling among children. It has also, with its constant diet of beer and other drinks advertising, reinforced the culture of alcohol abuse that defines Australia.

The gambling and alcohol industries are very powerful. Gambling is a major revenue stream for many state governments. The industries use their power politically to ensure they continue to profit from misery. Sport is a key strategy in the ongoing solidification and expansion of gambling and drinking.

The rivers of gold that flow from sports broadcasts give powerful media barons even greater reason to defend their patch and try to twist governments to their will on advertising and broadcast rules.

Some of the profit a particular sport makes is reinvested in the game to expand or, in the case of rugby league in Australia, to ward off competitors.  

Sports fandom performs a valuable role for the wealthy. Football fanaticism can be likened to religion and to paraphrase Marx on religion: it is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

It is more than that. Being a fan gives a sense of community with others supporting the same team but also, reflecting capitalism’s "dog eat dog" essence, a sense of unity against other teams and fans — their competitors.

Team sport, in this sense, is contradictory. Much like any business, it requires cooperation among the team’s players to defeat the others. Yet viewed as individual entities, each member of each team is in constant competition with the rest. 

Professional sport reflects the very economic essence of capitalism: relentless competition. Couple that with the numbing role it performs and it is clear that sport is political. 

But it is not all one way. Sportsmen and women also reflect the society in which they live. Australia's racism, for example, is reflected in the few well-paid outlets for non-whites, apart from sport.

Sometimes elite sportspeople resist the conservatives. The "take a knee" movement in professional sport in the U.S. is but the latest example in a long list of examples overseas and in Australia.

In Australian rugby league, 12 per cent of the players in 2016 were Aboriginal and 44 per cent in 2017 were of Pacific Islander or Maori descent. Only one of these is a coach. None, as far as I know, are senior administrators.

As Cottle and Keys put it:

‘What permeates Australian rugby league is a politics of whiteness … ’

None of these players has yet taken a knee or similar on the field. The "politics of whiteness" prevents them from doing so. The players cannot divorce themselves from the racist society that is Australia, and the day to day and systemic racism they encounter. While sport elevates them to elite status for a time, outside the bubble they become just another black man or woman.

Only one Australian gay rugby league player, Ian Roberts, has ever "come out" publically. Why is that? Because rugby league is a macho sport full of brawn. This stereotype of manliness precludes homosexuality, yet we can confidently presume that there are many gay rugby league players. This game-imposed suppression of acknowledging sexuality is political.

The same cawing conservatives who tell us sport is not political show a lot of interest in sport — especially when the grand finals come around. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten both proclaimed their "bipartisan" support for Richmond in the AFL Grand Final. Turnbull supported the North Queensland Cowboys in the National Rugby League grand final.

It is clear political opportunists know they have to relate to ordinary working class Australians and join with them on Grand Final Weekend. 

Tony Abbott is the Member for Warringah. Its rugby league team, Manly, did not do well this year but won government money when Abbott was prime minister to upgrade its oval, now called "Lottoland". No doubt when a beer company sponsors an oval we could call it "Blottoland". Tell me again, Mr Abbott, how politics and sport do not mix.

Some politicians appear to arrange their political activities to be in town when their team is playing or when a grand final is on. For example, North Melbourne AFL chairman Ben Buckley joked at the club’s famous Saturday morning grand final breakfast – a breakfast which included Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop – that Ms Bishop "had arranged a meeting of Cabinet in the Yarra Room at the MCG regarding the North Korean crisis".

There does seem to be some relationship between her visits to various towns and football matches played by her team, the West Coast Eagles

From sport’s competitive nature to the profits powerful interests derive from it to the abuse politicians make of it, it is clear that sport is political.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

Original cartoon by Mark David is published with permission. You can see more cartoons from Mark on his website Mark David Cartoons or follow him on Twitter @mdavidcartoons.

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