The AFL is kicking goals on social justice

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Adam Goodes during his playing days (image via Twitter).

The AFL’s socially inclusive agenda is an absolute necessity, writes assistant editor Nicholas Bugeja.

LIKE ANY GOOD full-forward, the Australian Football League (AFL) has been “front and centre” in the news of late.

There’s been the betting saga surrounding young Collingwood player, Jaidyn Stephenson. There has been frustration expressed towards so-called “behavioural awareness officers” patrolling the stands. And finally the soul-searching re-examination of the Adam Goodes controversy, following the release of The Final Quarter at Sydney Film Festival — a documentary chronicling the nasty twists and turns of Goodes’ final year in the game.

Closely connected with this is the perception that, under the current AFL boss, Gillon McLachlan, the AFL has taken on a socially-proactive role. And it’s a fairly accurate observation.

Female participation in the game has grown considerably. A highly-successful professional league has been created and grassroots opportunities for young women are commonly available. LGBTI issues have been boldly embraced, marked by an annual pride game between Sydney and St Kilda. Compassion is now the overwhelming theme when a player reveals their mental health battles.

And the AFL and its 18 clubs have apologised for their insufficient action on the racist booing to which Adam Goodes was subjected in 2015. Hawthorn players even wore Goodes' famous number 37 to show their solidarity with him in Round 14 of this year.

In a joint statement, the AFL and 18 clubs 'pledged to continue to fight all forms of racism and discrimination, on and off the field’.

There remains some way to go before these important matters are properly addressed and discrimination is eliminated. However, judging by appearances, the AFL has made a good start.

Some have predictably proven resistant to the idea of an inclusive, forward-looking AFL. Ex-Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett, Collingwood 1990 Premiership Captain Tony Shaw and others have publicly criticised its current trajectory.

Shaw stated:

‘Once you get into social issues you are automatically dividing a portion of the community.’

Probably the most common “objection” to this is that the AFL shouldn’t play politics — that people use sport to get away from the drudgery, prejudices and injustices that course through the veins of everyday life. Letting social issues pierce this sport-induced bubble takes away from its enjoyment and cathartic qualities.

This view might have intuitive appeal. Yet when held to the light, it falls apart. The sporting arena is not somehow divorced from the political and social configurations of society. Racism, sexism, LGBTI discrimination, stigma around mental illness and so forth, unfortunately, do not melt away when you attend a match or play in one.

If anything, the opposite is true: these prejudices can often manifest in a heightened, intensified way. Emotions and impetuosity often run high, producing ugly scenes that amplify the pre-existing tensions that pervade Australian society. That photo of Nicky Winmar proudly showing his Indigenous skin is a poignant reminder — as is the new Goodes documentary, The Final Quarter.

To recognise that sport is not immune from society’s ills is to accept that there is much to be done within a sporting context to repair divisions, fractures and ill-founded resentments. The fatal mistake that Shaw made in his above comment is that people in the community are already marginalised from the game. It’s no coincidence that no professional male AFL player to date has come out as gay. Instead, it’s obviously a product of the game’s faux-macho and exclusionary culture.

And though the AFL now deals with players’ mental illness in an appreciably better, more open manner, for years players who suffered mental illness felt stigmatised and alone — further exacerbating their difficult conditions.

Ceding ground to those who want a “social-issue free” game allows groups of people to remain marginalised or vilified. This view wants to take the game – and society, it seems – back to the uncomplicated “good old days”.

There is only one way to ensure that sport and the AFL progress in line with modern social standards. It’s for the AFL administration to take bold stances on matters of social justice that affect both the game and Australian life, more generally.

These sentiments can then filter through the game — to an extent where players can feel comfortable in their own skin and where a supporter’s only worry is whether their beloved team will end up victorious.

Nicholas Bugeja is an Assistant Editor for Independent Australia. You can follow him: @BugejaNick.

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