Playing by the Rules – in sport and life

By Paul Oliver

By Paul Oliver. This article is part of our March theme, Sport and Human Rights.

A coach has no access for her wheelchair to get into the local clubhouse. A spectator yells racist remarks at an Aboriginal player during a footy match. A team excludes a gay athlete from making the rep teams because it might “disrupt” preparations for the others. Sport or human rights issues?

If you answered “both”, then you’re right. Sport and human rights aren’t as far removed from each other as people might think; they both share many fundamental values and objectives. For example, the principles underpinning the Olympic Charter, such as non-discrimination and equality, are also the bedrock of human rights.

While there is no specific “right to sport” found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or any of the other major human rights treaties, most documents cover the rights to rest, leisure, physical and mental health. The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport also states that “every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport”. The Charter takes a very holistic approach to sport, using it as a catalyst to advance global objectives in the field of education, towards inter-cultural dialogue, civic engagement of young people, social cohesion and development.

despite all of these laws, policies and codes, grassroots sport in Australia is still not immune from acts of discrimination, harassment and abuse

Sport is lauded as a universal language that transcends cultural, ethnic, religious, age, gender, ability and linguistic boundaries. This is particularly the case in Australia, where sport is a fundamental element of our society and culture, and forms the very fabric of our daily lives.

The connection between human rights and sport allows human rights practitioners to educate the sporting community on rights and responsibilities, while those in sport promote relevant human rights issues they encounter such as racism, homophobia, sexism and discrimination.

Sport also has the ability to transform complicated human rights principles and aspirational motherhood statement such as “freedom”, “respect”, “equality” and “dignity”, into practical, easy-to-understand concepts like “fair play” and “sportsmanship”.

Issues in sport

Australia currently has federal, state and territory laws protecting people against race, sex and disability discrimination in all areas of life, including sport.

Each state and territory also has their own systems and laws around child protection aimed at keeping children safe from harm and abuse. These include screening processes for paid employees and volunteers in sport and reporting and investigation of cases of child abuse. Sporting organisations work hard to build and maintain child safe environments for all participants in their sport and promote this commitment through member protection policies.

All national and state and territory sporting organisations also have a range of polices and codes in place to address concerns and complaints of discrimination, harassment, vilification and other inappropriate behaviour.

it’s fine to be competitive, but everyone deserves respect and a fair go – fellow competitors and officials alike – regardless of their race, gender, religion, or sexual preference

However, despite all of these laws, policies and codes, grassroots sport in Australia is still not immune from acts of discrimination, harassment and abuse. On the contrary, incidents still occur on a regular basis from the elite to grassroots level across a range of sports every season.

The Australian Sports Commission’s 2010 Ethical and Integrity Issues in Australian Sport survey, along with many other researchers, have found a range of issues impacting negatively on sport in recent years including: racism and vilification; bullying; gender-based discrimination and sexual assault; poor parental and spectator behaviour; homophobia and child protection issues.

Recognising the need to support efforts to address issues around safe, fair and inclusive sport, a range of federal, state and territory government agencies have committed their ongoing support for the Play by the Rules program.

Play by the Rules

Play by the Rules was first developed by the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission in 2001 as an interactive education and information website on discrimination, harassment and child protection in sport. Over the years, as more agencies have seen the need to promote Play by the Rules, they have joined as partners and helped by contributing funds, content and in-kind support.

Play by the Rules is now a unique collaboration between the Australian Sports Commission, Australian Human Rights Commission, all state and territory departments of sport and recreation, all state and territory anti-discrimination and human rights agencies, the NSW Commission for Children and Young People and the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association (ANZSLA). These partners promote Play by the Rules through their networks, along with their own child safety, anti-discrimination and inclusion programs.

The program provides information, resources, tools and free online training to increase the capacity and capability of administrators, coaches, officials, players and spectators to assist them in preventing and dealing with discrimination, harassment and child safety issues in sport.

It brings human rights principles into sporting clubs in a non-threatening, sport-centred way, and more generally, expands the meaning of sports rules to encompass human rights principles. Common issues are addressed such as verbally abusive coaches, appropriate boundaries for physical contact, how to combat sexual and homophobic harassment, and the importance of inclusion for people with disabilities and those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds.

National campaigns featuring radio and television community service announcement ads, utilising national sporting icons, are also extending positive sporting messages more broadly to the general community.

Community service announcements

While sport has dominated the news for all the wrong reasons lately, there has been a timely release of some positive messages from four of Australia’s best known sport stars, who have each recorded a 30-second Community Service Announcement for the Play by the Rules.

The messages capture the best of our sporting spirit: that it’s fine to be competitive, but everyone deserves respect and a fair go – fellow competitors and officials alike – regardless of their race, gender, religion, or sexual preference.

Australian cricketer Peter Siddle talks about how “someone’s skin colour, religion or sexual preference doesn’t make a difference when they’re belting you for six”, while Hockyeroo Anna Flanagan and Socceroo Archie Thompson talk about the need to “respect every player and official” and just have fun in sport.

Cycling Gold Medallist from the 2012 Olympics, Anna Meares, talks about her Olympic rivalry with British cyclist Victoria Pendleton, and the importance of being gracious in victory and in defeat. She says “having my biggest rival, who I had just beaten, ride up next to me and lift my hand in victory topped off an amazing moment. We’d had our fair share of clashes over the years but in the end we both respected each other, and that’s what really counts in sport”.

Working to address racism in sport

Play by the Rules has worked strategically to create closer, more mutually-beneficial relationships with government agencies, sports federations and national and state sporting organisations, associations and clubs. This has helped to share and cross-promote information, programs and resources, link to wider sport and discrimination networks, and simplify the duplicity of information in the sector.

Play by the Rules has also recently pledged its ongoing support for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) national anti-racism campaign: “Racism. It Stops With Me”.

The campaign not only draws awareness to the presence of racism in the community, but aims to change the prevailing attitudes and behaviours that lead to and perpetuate racial discrimination in the workplace and the wider community.

To support the campaign, Play by the Rules is encouraging sportspeople and clubs to pledge their support for the campaign and to never excuse or condone acts of racism. Many sports stars and sporting organisations have already signed up to support the campaign.

Play by the Rules has developed a range of tools and resources to assist individuals and sporting clubs to prevent racism and to take action should it occur.

As part of the campaign, the AHRC and Play by the Rules are also developing a community service announcement video, featuring some of our national sporting heroes, which will be launched in May.

The wider role of sport

In a recent keynote address on Ethics and Moral Behaviour in Sport by Dr Doris Corbett (then President of the International Council for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport and Dance), she observed: “Sport has universal value, and is a social movement striving to contribute to the development of a peaceful and better world. Society expects many important and worthwhile things from sport and uses sport to support various fundamental social values and ethical principles such as equality for all people, fair play, respect for the loser, friendship, solidarity, justice and democracy, international peace and understanding.”

Our own federal Sports Minister Kate Lundy has also been unequivocal in what the power of sport can achieve: “I have always been passionate about the capacity of sport to forge communities, build acceptance and overcome social boundaries,” she said. “Sport is far more than the sum of its parts and is a critical area of social policy.”

I agree whole-heartedly: there are numerous examples of people’s participation in sport helping to encourage health family environments, fostering community strength and enhancing cultural identity. For proof, just look at the Helping Hoops or Midnight Basketball programs, or the Football United or Remote and Indigenous Hockey initiatives.

While being careful not to overstate the ability of sport alone to solve complex social and human rights problems, it is clear that sport it is one of the many useful tools that can address discrimination and contribute to social inclusion and community harmony.

Paul Oliver is currently the National Manager of Play by the Rules, He previously worked as the Director of Communications and Education at the Australian Human Rights Commission and has over 20 years’ experience in the sport and social justice arena. Paul is currently a PhD candidate with Curtin University researching the power of sport to break down cultural barriers and build social bridges.