Socceroos and Diamonds protest ‘sportswashing’: experts weigh in

28 October 2022
Academics are divided on the role of athletes in political activism
Australia's soccer and netball teams have dominated headlines this week for their political stances, drawing support and criticism from University of Sydney experts.

The Socceroos and Football Australia have made international news by becoming the first national team to officially call on Qatar to decriminalise same-sex relationships and protect migrant workers, less than a month before the FIFA World Cup.

The news comes just days after Hancock Prospecting withdrew its $15 million sponsorship of Netball Australia following concerns from Diamonds’ players over wearing the logo due to racist comments made by the company’s founder in the 1980s.

Dr Steve Georgakis is a leading researcher in the history and sociology of sport and a published author on the topic of soccer and soft power.

Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek is an internationally recognised expert in cross-cultural management, international human resource management, management of diversity, global leadership and corporate social responsibility.

The two academics put forward opposing views on the role of athletes as activists.

Activist athletes: Dragging sport into the culture wars

Dr Steve Georgakis

“Athlete activism has and will divide society – it is a polarising phenomenon in the current Australian sporting landscape. For most of its history, Australian sporting authorities crucified athletes who attempted it. Peter Norman is a classic example. The Australian public also frowned upon it, even as late as the Adam Goodes saga.

“Australian sport has functioned as a beacon of initially British nationalism and, since roughly World War II, Australian nationalism. Sport was used as an 'assimilator'; something which was supposed to be apolitical but which was indirectly very political — an uniter, not a divider. 

Once sport goes down the 'culture war' path, it will have less significance as a uniting force in Australian society. It will no longer be the privileged Australian institution that sustained Australian identity.
Dr Steve Georgakis

“In the hyper-commercialised sporting world, denouncing sponsors, speaking about human rights and raising sportswashing concerns is riddled with problems. One of them is hypocrisy – if you don't like Qatar's human rights, well, you should boycott the World Cup. If you believe in a sustainable future, being a professional athlete correlates with excessive carbon footprints. Athletes are picking and choosing their concerns.

“Another problem is the sponsors will not hang around and the money will be taken out of the sport, as was the case with Netball Australia. Sponsors and television deals are the lifeline of the growth of elite level sport, especially the emerging women's professional sport. None of the major Australian sporting sponsors (alcohol industry, sports betting agencies, junk food and soft drink industries) are banned from sponsoring Australian sport. They drive commercialised sport.

“Finally, the issue with Australian sport getting caught up with these issues is that it takes away from what sport is about. The joy of playing in your youth; the educational, social and physical benefits. We have been so focused on the elite level sport that grassroots sport doesn't rate a mention. Participation should be more of a focus than spectatorship. And the current debates are about spectatorship.”

Activist athletes: Using privilege for good

Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek

“Sport is an integral part of Australian society. Athletes are aspirational idols and strong influencers, especially for the young generations. To this end, athletes not only can but should play an active role in shaping attitudes and role-modelling the values and behaviours we, as a society, see as fundamental for the welfare of our country. 

“Retired Socceroo Craig Foster uses his privilege and recognition to advance human rights across multiple domains. Beyond making a strong stance on the World Cup, he has been committed to fighting racism and advocating for refugee rights, among other causes. He is not only talking about the importance of human rights – he practices what he preaches by directly engaging with and supporting disadvantaged communities. His accolades are a testimony to the impact he achieves, but they are also a reminder that there is no fair game within an unfair society.

“Sport can be a powerful platform for societal transformation. The UN’s recent endorsement of the Sport for One Humanity initiative recognises that sport can be more than physical activity or a fun spectacle. 

If corporations can make millions in our spending on purchases inspired by our beloved sportspeople, let’s imagine how much can be achieved through athlete activism.
Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek

“Defending human rights should be a role each and every one of us assumes. Turning a blind eye and checking out of responsibility is an easy option. As role models that we put on a pedestal, athletes have a position of privilege most of us will never experience. With privilege comes responsibility. Athlete activism should not be the force that divides and polarises society but instead should be seen as a force that unites us.” 

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