Sticks and stones: which words are banned in sport and why

Collingwood footballer Harry O'Brien says homophobia in sport is wrong. He’s right, but what about his own weight related comments to players? AAP/Theron Kirkman

Sydney Swans AFL player Adam Goodes was racially abused by a 13 year old girl. The resultant media storm proved that racism is no longer considered acceptable in the world of Australian Football, neither by players nor by fans.

But if we can agree that great progress has been made in dealing with racism in Australian Football, then what about other forms of abuse?

Collingwood football player, Harry O’Brien, recently tweeted that he didn’t call Geelong’s Tom Hawkins a “fucking fag” during a hotly contested match:

Just to clear something up..Id never resort to a homophobic slur..for those wanting to know, I said fat fuck..simply some onfield banter.

O’Brien is clearly comfortable using “fat” as an insult, and confident that it will be OK with the wider public. Last year St Kilda player Stephen Milne was fined $3000 by the St Kilda football club after an AFL investigation for calling O’Brien a “fucking homo” during a game. At that time, O’Brien commented that he has used such slurs and that homophobic slurs are fairly common, but that the AFL educates players not to use them.

However, it seems that size-related slurs are accepted and deemed acceptable by the AFL. The problem here lies partially with O'Brien’s original insult, and partially with the follow-up. The AFL and the media have generally accepted that it is fine to use “fat” as an insult.

The meaning of the word “fat” is not inherently bad. It has been reclaimed by the fat acceptance movement and fat activists around the world as a descriptor. Many people find the word “fat” insulting because they link it to other words that have been associated with “fat”. Words like lazy, gluttonous, undisciplined, stupid, and slothful. If you use “fat” to describe someone in a similar way to how you use “thin”, it doesn’t have to be insulting. But it can be used as an insult – by attaching another insulting word to it, like fat “bitch” or fat “fuck” or fat “arsehole”.

This is not to say that fat is the “last acceptable prejudice” as it is sometimes stated, because it’s not. In Australia, many groups and individuals face prejudice – from migrants, to indigenous people, to gay people. That prejudice doesn’t always take the same form for all groups, but it does exist, and the “acceptability” level of prejudice changes within different contexts in our culture. The fact that the AFL fines its players for homosexual slurs on the field is a positive sign that insults based on sexuality are no longer accepted within the AFL. The fact that it is deemed that no apology to fat people is needed after a fat slur, is not a positive sign.

O’Brien has been considered a role model for children, and he does speak out about indigenous issues, asylum seekers and against homophobia. O’Brien engages with these issues yet shows little awareness of “fat” as a problematic insult. This is fairly common in our culture, and is just one example of the wider discrimination that fat people face.

The concept of “role model” in itself is problematic – as if an individual’s every move should represent a group and as if that person is infallible. But in light of the fact that O’Brien is considered a role model, and does have some intelligent reflections on prejudice, it is especially troubling that he feels “fat” is an acceptable insult.

Children and adolescents are already receiving messages that fat is bad and fat is always unhealthy, so for a respected player to use “fat” as an angry insult, only contributes to this negativity surrounding fat.

It is not only fat children (and adults) who suffer in a fat phobic society – it is also “normal” weight children who develop a phobia of fat, and a fear of becoming fat. All children need to feel that they won’t be ridiculed if they are to play group sport.

Some children are likely to avoid such sports out of shame about their bodies, and for fear of insult. The stigma attached to being fat can follow children into adulthood and limit their engagement with sport and exercise in public spaces.

It is a shame that many people are deterred from enjoying sports through fear of insult, whether that insult is racist, homophobic or sizeist.