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Eddie Betts and racism in sport: it’s not enough to just not join in

It may not be comfortable or easy to do but racist abuse needs to be challenged in sport and our society. Ben Macmahon/AAP

Eddie Betts and racism in sport: it’s not enough to just not join in

In the 1970s and 1980s, black footballers in England and Scotland were all too frequently subjected to racist abuse. It was not uncommon to see bananas thrown at players.

In mainland Europe, this deplorable act is still happening and in recent years bananas have been thrown at footballers, in obviously racist attacks, in countries such as Spain, Russia, Italy and Turkey. Even the National Hockey League in North America has not been immune to this behaviour.

After a similar incident in Saturday night’s AFL match between Port Adelaide and the Adelaide Crows, where a Port fan threw a banana at Adelaide player Eddie Betts (who is Indigenous), it seems Australia should now be added to this list.

Sport can be a driver for change; it can make a difference in people’s lives and unify communities, particularly around national successes. But it can also create tensions and cause conflict.

Following an earlier incident of racism in the AFL, where Sudanese-born player Majak Daw was abused from over the fence, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said racism:

… reduces another person to the status of being a second-class citizen. And it prevents individuals and communities from reaching their potential.

Around the world, sporting achievements are still “seen” in racialised terms. Success (and failure) is explained by of skin colour. The white skin of an athlete is rarely highlighted (and is largely invisible), whereas the skin colour of a black athlete is often identified as a determining factor of ability.

In Australian sport, “whiteness” is still the norm against which all others are measured, with athletes from different backgrounds classed as “others”. It serves as a site for the emphasis of notions of “difference”, often resulting in offensive and abusive behaviour by fans and other athletes.

What does racism in sport say about society?

This behaviour has often been written off as “banter” and accepted as part of sport. This acceptance is indicative of deeper societal issues.

Australian football has been tied to historical notions of Anglo-Celtic “Australianness” – and there is evidence that fans continue to adhere to these mythical views when deciding who is and is not “Australian”.

The AFL is attempting to widen the appeal of Australian football to non-traditional markets. It has recruited players from diverse ethnic backgrounds to act as multicultural ambassadors. These ambassadors have been drawn from Brazilian, Polynesian, African and Lebanese heritage, while Indigenous players have also been prominently featured in marketing material.

However, in recent years, Daw, Nic Naitanui, Adam Goodes, and Lance Franklin have all been subjected to racist abuse on multiple occasions.

The focus on the heritage of such players may actually be detrimental to their acceptance by traditional AFL fans due to the continued Anglocentric culture of Australia and Australian football. These players may be identified as “others” by Anglo-Celtic fans, and targeted for abuse.

Photographs used by the media and clubs often emphasise the players’ heritage, making them an “acceptable face” of a certain minority community, acting as a role model and potential hero for others, while simultaneously restricting their aspirations to playing sport – given there are few opportunities in coaching and management.

Racism is no longer tolerated in the AFL but racial assumptions of black inferiority continue to be made. As historian Colin Tatz has said, sport:

… has shown Aborigines and Islanders that using their bodies is still the one and only way they can compete on equal terms with an often hostile, certainly indifferent, mainstream society.

Adam Goodes was subjected to racist abuse in his final seasons of football. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Losing sight of what is important

Sport generates extremes of passion, partisanship, and adoration.

Fans commit significant time, effort and money to following their team. They see opposition supporters and players as rivals or enemies. They will use various means to try to intimidate and belittle them, often using terms and behaviour that in other walks of life would be seen as unacceptable.

While banana-throwing is often an isolated act, the booing of Goodes took place on a much larger scale, with whole sections of stadiums joining in.

Through the process of deindividuation it is easy for spectators to lose all sense of “I” when they are part of a group. They join in with behaviour they would normally condemn, perhaps writing it off as part of the experience or believing what they are doing to be somehow “less real” because it happened at a sports match.

English footballer John Barnes kicks a banana off the pitch. Getty Images

Room for hope?

Dani Alves, a Brazilian footballer who had a banana thrown at him in a racist attack in 2014, once claimed that the fight against racism in Spanish football is “a lost cause”. In Russia, Christopher Samba – another footballer to have bananas thrown at him – received a two-match ban for making an “unpleasant gesture” in response to racist abuse he received.

In contrast to these examples of societally accepted racism, there is hope for Australia. Recent incidents of racist abuse have been called out by those around the perpetrator and widely condemned. Last year, former Wallabies captain David Pocock became one of a small minority of players to challenge on-field abuse. His stance received a mixed reaction, with some parts criticising him for breaking a perceived code of silence.

Significantly, while Port Adelaide banned its banana-throwing fan, she was also invited to take part in the club’s Aboriginal cultural awareness programs, run by its Aboriginal players. Betts has supported this move, and educating offenders – and wider Australian society – as to why this behaviour is unacceptable and the impacts it has must be part of the solution.

It is hard to swim against the tide, but it is important that when fans witness abuse, even if it is widespread such as the booing of Goodes, they do more than just not join in. It may not be comfortable or easy to do, but such abuse needs to be challenged in sport and our society.

Players are increasingly taking a stand and not accepting racial (and other) abuse. Fans should follow their examples.


Keith Parry will be online for an Author Q&A between 1 and 2pm on Wednesday, 24 August, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.

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