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What is sport’s role in addressing systemic racism?

By Rana Hussain

Sport has always been a cornerstone of our national identity. Many migrants to the country can attest to the experience of being encouraged to pick a sports team as a way ‘into’ Australian culture. Intertwined with sport in Australia is corporate Australia, media and politics. Sport, as we know, can have incredible positive outcomes for communities that range from physical and mental health, to social cohesion and economic growth. Given its reach and influence it must also shoulder the responsibility of addressing social issues that affect it too. As the world begins to reckon with systemic racism (something people of colour have long been calling out), our larger institutions capable of doing the heavy lifting that’s required to create change must ask themselves what can they do? And so, sport (its governing bodies, CEOs, and boards) must ask itself – what is our role in dismantling systemic racism in Australia?

The absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other people of colour in administrative, leadership and coaching positions is glaringly obvious.

Australian sport is statistically over represented on the field (mostly in team sports) by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders when compared to the population. You could be forgiven for thinking that the sporting field is the only place where First Nations and culturally diverse people (albeit, mostly men) can dominate and succeed. And yet the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other people of colour in administrative, leadership and coaching positions is glaringly obvious. Though it might explain why Australian sport is so interested in holding up the individual story of the black athlete in attempts to celebrate diversity, but are less willing to look internally at the systems that leave marginalised communities out of decision making, power positions, and making real change.

It is incumbent on sport to not only participate in the symbolism of unity but also to actively dismantle and restructure its own institutions to move us all forward.

Sport seems to be the space in Australia where different races talk to each other in meaningful and productive ways—where Jack Riewoldt and Sydney Stack can take a knee next to each other in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Athletes are increasingly becoming more comfortable in using their platform to bring awareness to issues like racism. This form of activism is then beamed into living rooms and mobile phones around the country. The symbolism is profound and the cut-through enviable. But what value the individual or performed acts of advocacy when the work of systemic change is not apparent? It is incumbent on sport to not only participate in the symbolism of unity but also to actively dismantle and restructure its own institutions to move us all forward. That work should never be left to individual athletes.

It is worth acknowledging that well meaning investment and interventions have taken place across various sporting codes to address the marginalisation of many different communities. However the continuing lack of diversity within sporting organisations, and continued existence of systemic and individual acts of racism in community and elite sport, is evidence that those programs have not gone deep enough to address root causes. They are often cosmetic and commonly led by perceived ‘outsiders’ by marginalised communities. This in turn creates a more paternalistic and self-serving approach to addressing issues of inequality.

Step one in addressing systemic racism in sport has to be to address the lack of diversity in sporting organisations.

Sport leads the way in symbolic gestures, which are useful in and of themselves. It also has a long way to go in creating the sort of change that rises above individual stories of triumph over adversity, of teammates standing in solidarity by and with each other, and of elaborately themed games. Sport must operate in both spheres of symbolic storytelling and celebration whilst also doing the work. ‘The work’ without the storytelling is largely invisible and a missed opportunity to share messages of social cohesion, while the gestures without the work reek of inauthenticity. Sport should be telling its own story of rising up from the muck of inequality.

Step one in addressing systemic racism in sport has to be to address the lack of diversity in sporting organisations. This will inevitably require quotas and people in powerful positions stepping aside to make room for others. Case in point: Alexis Ohanian—partner of Serena Williams—vacated his seat on the board of Reddit and stipulated that the seat be given to a black candidate. He also donated his Reddit stock gains to organisations that work to curb and eliminate racism. Sport needs people at all levels of power to step forward and be ready to be critical of, and change, systems. Frankly, this means there needs to be more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and people of colour involved in these organisations, from top to bottom. 

Also necessary to systemic change is financial redistribution. This would mean doubling efforts and investment in community and grassroots sport, particularly in communities already under-served and marginalised, including continued investment in addressing barriers and challenges to participation. This would mean doubling down on investment into pathways to elite sport for marginalised communities. It would also mean centering sporting clubs as community connection hubs and supporting these clubs to ensure they are run for, and by, the communities they are there to benefit. This is how sport can address cyclical disadvantage.

The inequities that continue to exist in sport are certainly not from a lack of effort by people of colour.

It is this kind of engagement that creates great sporting heroes, moments and organisations, because it reflects an industry that is tuned in to what is happening with the people they call upon to turn up – to participate and to buy memberships. A global pandemic and economic downturn may see many sporting organisations run for the hills and leave their once good intentions behind. However if sport shies away from this moment of global reckoning due to economic concerns, then what is the greater purpose of survival, especially post Covid-19? Is it to only entertain those who can afford to live in a political, social and economic bubble? Thus exploiting athletes by ignoring the communities they’ve come from? This seems short-sighted at the very least.

The inequities that continue to exist in sport are certainly not from a lack of effort by people of colour. So one must ask, in whose hands does change really sit? Those with power must ask themselves: am I a gatekeeper standing in the way of progress? If the answer is yes, then they need to act. They must have an honest and candid conversation about racism in sport and double their contributions – on the field and off the field.

We all must.


Rana Hussain. What is sport’s role in addressing systemic racism?

Rana Hussain is an Inclusion and Diversity specialist. She is a podcaster (Our Stripes, The Outer Sanctum Podcast), radio regular, presenter and writer. 

3 thoughts on “What is sport’s role in addressing systemic racism?

  1. Well said Rana. I am so tired of seeing organisations that I respect like The Age, the ABC replace on air presenters, sports journalists with more white middle class men. Where are the great women? Where are the women and men of diverse cultural background? Why have AFL clubs like Richmond, who make a big noise about diversity so quickly not employed or remployed people like you in your department?

  2. A confronting piece. Again, you have sparked a neccessity to think deeper and further into inclusivity and diversity.

  3. Very well written, I hope that people throughout the sports industry read this and adapt these solutions to tackling systematic racism.

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