Racism in sport

  • Integrity Blog

WARNING: the following story contains messages that show racial abuse, that may distress some readers.

At first glance, it would seem that sport in Australia provides a unified sense of community with Aussies cheering on our cross-cultural representation, where respect and teamwork creates an inclusive environment of camaraderie, that rises above intolerance and exclusion.

Where millions of Australians turn on their TVs or clamour to buy tickets to cheer on Aussie athletes no matter who they are, where they come from, the colour of their skin or whether they are indigenous to this country or originate from elsewhere.

However, it has become clear that racism not only exists in Australian sport, but it does at all levels − from juniors through to elite − from participants through to match officials, volunteers, fans, coaches and beyond.

Professional sport front and centre

It’s almost a daily occurrence to see our professional leagues highlighted in the press with racism at the fore, whether it be player to player, abuse from the crowd, online abuse or a general culture of disrespect within clubs.

In 2021, AFL player Eddie Betts spoke out for the first time about racist comments made by an opposing player (and former teammate). He told The Age newspaper:

“Racism does exist in Australia, and over the past 10 years of playing AFL footy, I have been racially abused every single year. It happened last week. It happened the week before that and the week before that.”

He urged more people to make a stand.

“People shy away from it, from knowing Australia is a racist country. No matter who you are or what you do, when it comes to racism, everyone should be held accountable. I don’t care if you’re a CEO of a company or a janitor of a toilet.”

Professional athletes Alison Bai, Joel Wilkinson and Priscilla Hon talk about racism in sport
Sport Integrity Australia spoke to Alison Bai, Joel Wilkinson and Priscilla Hon about racism in sport.

Professional tennis player Priscilla Hon, who is currently ranked just outside the world’s top 150, has experienced racism on her social media for years.

In fact, “I can’t remember when I wasn’t racially abused, maybe 9−10 years ago when I was in juniors”.

As her shocking social media messages show, Hon is hounded win or lose. She said it happens so often, she’s “almost oblivious to it”.

“They [the comments] used to hurt much more at the start,” said Hon, who believed most of her abuse came from online gamblers. “Why else would they care? Sometimes I get them even when I’m not playing. They don’t have much weight to them now because I’m just used to it, it happens all the time and it doesn’t matter if I win or lose.

“It’s like you can’t really win either way.”

Examples of racial abuse athlete Priscilla Hon has received on social media
Examples of social media posts regularly received by Priscilla Hon and shared by her in order to call out racist behaviours in Australian sport.

Her friend and former tennis player, Alison Bai, agreed.

“I think I was oblivious to it because I thought it was normal at the time,” Bai said. “It was more difficult when you lost because you are already going through all those emotions and processing the loss, so when you add abuse and more negativity after you lose it can make you feel even more worthless.”

In stark contrast to many athletes, both players said they had never been racially abused while competing, only online after their match.

Bai said the abuse is why her social media accounts are set to private, while Hon, who made a public stand against the abuse last year, said she usually just deleted and blocked them, but then asked herself: “Why are we trying to hide it? We get it all the time. We need to call it out.”

Community sport not immune

A 2019 joint university study Participation versus performance: managing (dis)ability, gender and cultural diversity in junior sport found that "racial vilification was a common occurrence among players in junior sports, as well as with spectators…with non-white children being the targets of most abuse.”

The study, which included interviews with more than 100 coaches, players, club officials and parents, also found that many instances of racism went unreported for fear of backlash against those who spoke up.

Volunteers in local sport confirm there is definitely an issue in sporting communities.

“I have witnessed it in grassroots sports my whole life, to a certain degree,” Francisco Meza, a club administrator in community soccer, said.

“My sport has been referred to as ‘wog-ball’ for most of my life and the racism I see comes from all the different cultural and ethnic backgrounds within the sport. Countries who may have trouble spots or conflict back at home, bringing that to the football field here in Australia.

“I’ve also witnessed racist slurs against our players of colour, which we took straight to our governing body. You have to say a hard ‘no’ both in person at the time of these incidents and through the mechanisms you have to report it officially. You can’t sweep it under the rug,” he said.

Delfina Shakespear, a national and state-level football match official and recent recipient of an ACT Government Woman of the Year award for her commitment to empowering female referees, has been the victim of racist and misogynistic abuse over several years.

In 2021 she was subjected to more than 10 listed offences of racist and discriminatory verbal abuse from one match that saw that team docked 24 competition points and the risk of being relegated, ordered to prepare a risk assessment management plan, given a formal warning, fined $1,000 and ordered to communicate the guilty verdict and sanctions to its spectators via social media.

When it comes to referee abuse generally and her commitment to the Reduce Abuse campaign, Shakespear told The Canberra Times in July 2021 that “everyone needs to buy in, from the grassroots up”.

“No matter what your role is, you shouldn’t feel like someone’s going to yell at you or abuse you, whether you’re playing, you’re spectating or you’re refereeing...and its empowering people to feel if you see something bad and you’re not OK with it, call it out. That’s what we’re trying to get to.”

How do we address racism?

Joel Wilkinson, former AFL and NFL player and a current advisor to Sport Integrity Australia, believes there is much we can do as a proud sporting nation to eliminate racism, but it shouldn’t be up to a few individuals.

“Racism in sport is becoming more publicised which is bringing it to the attention of more people, but it’s always been there,” he said.

“Sporting systems need to correctly deal with racism as racism isn’t always being held to account.

“Institutions, governments and sporting organisations must uphold their policy and legal requirements and be more transparent in their processes around racial discrimination.

“As a result, society will better understand their social and legal responsibilities to uphold inclusiveness and stop racial abuse in sport.”

Wilkinson is concerned about a pattern of racism in sport with victims of racial abuse feeling let down and unsatisfied by the process, and where Australian law around racism isn’t always upheld.

“That’s why it’s essential that sporting bodies and organisations such as Sport Integrity Australia play a pivotal role in holding these policies, laws and standards in sport to account.

“Sport and its institutions can influence society to understand what behaviour and attitudes are acceptable or not. We must have accountability and consequences to set new and better precedents.”

Wilkinson acknowledged the role sport plays in Australia as a focal point for inclusion and where people can best express themselves, stay active and have fun. It’s something that brings Australia a great amount of pride.

“That’s the power of sport, but it can be quickly lost, and the trust and passion tarnished if we don’t get it right,” he said. “That’s how influential this matter is and sport’s role in racism. What occurs on the field can carry off the field and into everyday lives.”

Wilkinson is pleased to see the work being done firsthand in Sport Integrity Australia and other sporting bodies on strategies to prevent and promote anti-racism in sport in the hope that we can find a new and better way forward in handling racism.

“If it can be better dealt with at the managerial, executive, board, legal and government levels then those who play sport or deal with racism, will benefit from that. A third-party organisation overseeing processes is always beneficial.”

What can Australian sports do to create a space where racism is less likely to occur?

Erfan Daliri, CEO of Kind Enterprises and social change consultant said “while racism in Australian sport is a significant issue, sport also has an incredible unifying power to make a difference if we are proactive about it. Let’s capitalise on that and contribute to a stronger social fabric.”

Daliri has been working in this space for over 20 years as an educator, consultant and advocate for social change, and now provides systems thinking approaches to the complex challenges of racial equity, social justice and multicultural affairs.

“We’re finding that each new generation is innately more aware of injustice, has a lower tolerance for it, and is more curious about solutions” Daliri said. “Young athletes, have the potential for a heightened sense of justice with the proper education and support around them.

“More broadly, we’re seeing a great shift in the desire to even talk about racism in Australia. In the past the conversation was limited in scope and depth, but we’re now seeing an appetite to talk about racism in a much more authentic and genuine way," he said.

“But we’re only just scratching the surface of what needs to happen. Instead of a punitive approach focused on punishment we need to work with the whole ecosystem of sport and governance in a unified way to create an environment where racism is actually less likely to occur.

“We have an opportunity to ensure a much lower tolerance for racism as each generation comes along, especially in the lead-up to the 2032 Olympics. But we need to work through a few things that sport can do right now to ensure that happens.”

Daliri said that in many cases, particularly in grassroots sport, coaches, match officials and administrators don’t know what to do.

“A lack of racial literacy and confidence to even discuss race and racism means we can sometimes respond to incidents in counter-productive ways or fail to respond at all, which only reinforces the racial harm and normalises the behaviour.”

Our first thought might be to remove a victim of racial vilification after on-field abuse which he said is inadvertently punishing them, and rewarding the perpetrator, often an athlete or supporter from the opposing team.

“Education is key in this space,” Daliri confirmed. “Let’s work with sport at all levels to get it right and ensure we protect the integrity of sport and the hearts, minds and careers of athletes.

“We’re proud to be working with Sport Integrity Australia to build a long-term plan and strategy. Let’s use sport as the great unifier it can be in this country, do the work with our codes to empower coaches, players, match officials and volunteers to know what to do in these situations,” he said.

Queensland Rugby League CEO Ben Ikin believes that both elite and club level sports can shift community attitudes and create a space where racism is less likely to occur.

“The capacity, for tier one sports in particular, to affect positive change in communities is really heartwarming,” he said.

“When a community club is managed really well, when you've got good volunteers who understand that this is about providing a fun and safe experience for a whole lot of people that love the game, that want to participate in the game, those strong, well run community clubs strengthen the communities that they're part of.”

Playing the Aussie Way means saying no to racism

“Every weekend we witness incredible achievements across Australian sports, from the winning professional teams to the joy produced by the six-year-old participating in a sporting event for the first time,” said Sport Integrity Australia CEO David Sharpe.

“However, on a weekly basis we witness cowards hiding behind a keyboard racially abusing our sporting heroes, or people hiding in a sporting crowd yelling racial abuse while three rows deep.

“Attitudes won’t change until the narrative changes,” he said.

“It is incumbent on sporting bodies to use the power of their brands to engage their sponsors and use their media platforms to change attitudes. Sport and sponsors’ brands are being aligned to poor behaviours; however, it is the power of these brands that can force a cultural shift to eradicate poor behaviours.

“There are no excuses for slurs that could be interpreted as racist in nature. If the comments cause hurt, then intent is irrelevant. If the comments offend an individual, they also offend their families, their countries, their culture.

“Let’s make these cowards the minority. Fans need to take control of their sports. They need to pledge to remove this from our sports. It’s time to call people out for bad behaviour.

“That’s playing the Aussie way − clean, safe, fair and inclusive.”

Patrick Johnson, Safety and Culture Advisor, Sport Integrity Australia, said we have “to create real space for culturally safe spaces around diversity and inclusion in Australian sport”.

“Sport brings people together and it needs to reflect and mirror our actions, values and aspirations as a society and country,” Johnson said. “We need to draw a clear line in the sand. We are all responsible to call out racism, we do not tolerate it in our sport now or in the future, our kids deserve better as this doesn’t represent our Australian way of life.

“We have a unique opportunity for sport to lead in this space. But it takes all of us to stand up and say NO to racism and discrimination in all its forms. Racism stops with each and every one of us.”

Committed to safe, respectful and inclusive sport, our Play the Aussie Way campaign has been created to encourage Australians to call out bullying, harassment and racism.

In addition to the Play the Aussie Way awareness campaign, Sport Integrity Australia has implemented the National Integrity Framework and a range of additional policy options, along with the reporting hotline, aimed at safeguarding athletes at all levels from racial abuse.

Safe Sport Hotline

The Safe Sport hotline has been created for people to share their story with a trusted member of Sport Integrity Australia, who can provide guidance around the options available to deal with the issue. 

This includes wider racial and cultural issues.

1800 161 361

Sport Integrity Matters

The above post also appeared in the March 2024 issue of Sport Integrity Matters magazine.

Sport Integrity Matters - March 2024 issue - athlete Ellie Cole on cover

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