Racism is Real in Australia

May 2014

In light of recent comments made by NBA team owner Donald Sterling, racism in sport has been launched into the spotlight. The abhorrent nature of his statements to his alleged mistress V. Stiviano, including the request, 'not to bring (black people) to my games,' is clear to all who listen to the recording of their conversation. However, most striking about this incident is the severity and speed of the NBA response. Within days of Sterling's comments emerging to the public via gossip website TMZ, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had issued Sterling a lifetime ban from the competition, fined him the maximum $2.5 million USD penalty allowed by the league constitution and vowed to force him to sell his team. Meanwhile, major sponsors including Mercedes Benz and Virgin America terminated their support for his team, the LA Clippers, for as long as Sterling remained owner.

Unfortunately, this sort of bigotry is all too real for Australian sports fans. Days after a 13 year old football supporter called Adam Goodes an 'ape' during the AFL indigenous round last year, Triple M radio host and Collingwood CEO Eddie McGuire wondered on air whether the producers of King Kong should use the footballer to promote the musical.

We live a country that claims to be moving beyond racism and making amends for the dark shadows of our history, from the systemic discrimination of the Stolen Generation policy to the prejudice that indigenous footballers such as Nicky Winmar and Michael Long defiantly stood against. However, when we compare the response to McGuire and Sterling's comments, arguably on par with regard to offensiveness and historical lack of sensitivity, it is clear that Australia has a long way to go.

Far from facing widespread condemnation, expulsion from the league or financial sanction, Eddie McGuire continued in his roles as Triple M host and Collingwood CEO almost untouched. The only consequence he faced was a 'racial vilification counselling program' – a slap on the wrist without public accountability or tangible outcomes. Moreover, this is not an isolated incident of racism on McGuire's part – as far back as 1999 he laughed along with Sam Newman, co-host of the Footy Show, during his infamous 'blackface' skit in which Newman painted his face to appear in lieu of Nicky Winmar. More recently in 2011, McGuire described Western Sydney as 'the land of the falafel' while arguing that young players wouldn't want to join the GWS Giants. This sort of behavior points to an underlying streak of racism, but also to an assumption that comments made in a casual or joking manner need not be taken seriously.

How can such a man remain CEO of a major Australian sporting club and continue to hold significant power in the media? The weak response of the AFL is shameful when compared to the NBA's immediate and uncompromising stance against bigotry in sport. Ultimately, the consequences of such inaction reverberate more widely, as it acts as a tacit acceptance of casual racism – a powerful and destructive message to send to Australians of all backgrounds. The terminology used by the media in discussing McGuire's actions perpetuates such eschewal of guilt, labelling his comments a 'slip of the tongue' and 'a gaffe' rather than acknowledging the underlying severity of such racist slurs. To call an indigenous player an ape constitutes racial vilification, regardless of whether the words were used in sincerity or jest, just as racist joking among friends has the capacity to cause serious offence and should always be viewed as unacceptable.

The NBA's hard line against Sterling delivered a strong indication to all basketball fans that 'there can be zero tolerance for racism and hatred in the NBA', as described by NBA great Michael Jordan. Conversely, McGuire's escape from true sanctions acts as yet another example of brushing the uncomfortable reality of racism under the carpet, rather than taking a stand for the sake of all Australians.