Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Racism and nationalism in sport

Reading Time: 3 minutes

At the turn of the 20th century, sport was merely a game. Participants even at the highest level were amateurs and administrators; albeit exclusively from the upper echelons of society, were happy with the ‘goodwill’ of being associated with games that brought joy to spectators seeking weekend relief from the working week.

By century’s end, sport had become a multi-billion dollar industry, played at the highest level by full-time professionals, administered by neo-liberal accountants and watched by obsessive audiences seeking meaning out of the deeds of others.

Racism in sport isn’t separate from xenophobic attitudes and emotions generated in the wider community. It comes as no surprise that nationalism, racism and class division are facets of sport that challenge participants, spectators and administrators alike.

Some sports address racism better than others. The Australia Football League (AFL) has had some success countering racism in the game. Successive administrations took on board the hurt of players, almost exclusively of Aboriginal decent, exposed to racist taunting. Threats of suspension, enhanced public profiles of indigenous players and a campaign against racism have contributed to players and spectators generally accepting that racist taunting isn’t ‘barracking’ or a part of the game.

A minority of ex-players and media commentators rushed to the defence of ‘racists’ claiming that calling someone a black so and so was ‘gamesmanship’ and that those opposed to on-field chatter had a mental weakness and were seeking to make the game soft.

Whilst it would be naïve to say that racism has been completely wiped from the game, particularly at a local level, attitudes are much better than times when it was common place to hear the words ‘Black Bastard’ used to describe Aboriginal players, even those on your side!

AFL administrators though don’t have to deal with the rampant nationalism that plagues international sport. Accusations of racism directed towards Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds by Indian players and fans brought an added dimension to the topic.

Reaction to Symonds complaints has been mixed. Local journalists are keen to point out that Australian players have been willing to sledge and play hard but can’t take it when Indians give them some of their own medicine. Again the debate about what constitutes fair play has been tangled up amongst the issue of racism.

Indian cricket authorities have been keen to lay the blame with Symonds, citing a cultural misunderstanding of the use of the word ‘monkey’. There is no cultural misunderstanding. Blacks of African and West Indian decent are often denigrated with monkey chants across the world and India is no different.

What has surprised many Australians is the racism from Indians towards non-Indians. While the dominant racism and the racism with the most impact on the real world, is that used by imperialism to justify and provide political cover for its exploitation – it is also a feature in India.

British imperialism created divides to help continue their rule in the past. The legacy of artificially created Pakistan, Bangladesh and India itself has left continued divisions. Inside India, the dominant Hindu ruling elite uses racism to divide and conquer and aim it at the Muslim and Sikh minority. A broader Indian nationalism is fostered to divert attention away from the class, caste and other divisions that are a feature of Indian capitalism.

Socialists are opposed to racism and nationalism in all forms, especially divisive language and behaviour. We condemn racism both on and off the field. Racism and nationalism is a barrier to ordinary people uniting against exploitation and oppression and only goes to serve the interests of the rich and the elite.

By Andrew Calleja


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