Playing the Game: Is Sport as Good for Race Relations as We'd like to Think?

Article excerpt

Abstract: With the increasing engagement of Australia's Indigenous peoples with Australian society, sport is heralded as an avenue of positive race relations. However, is this an accurate characterisation of Australian race relations? The research reported here examined Aboriginal male involvement in the sport of rugby league. It is proposed that Indigenous involvement can be attributed more to a positive cycle of personal application and self-confidence than inherent physical ability or the supposed meritocracy of Australian sport. This positive spiral links belief in racial stereotypes of physicality, self-confidence in skill acquisition and practice, improved performance, belief reinforcement and, finally, reaffirming Aboriginal identity formation. This positive spiral was not infallible. Every subject interviewed recounted occasions when racism jolted this positive construction of self. The research also considered the need for these Indigenous football players to make frequent and regular transitions between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal situations within Australian society. An individual's capacity to accommodate these shifts indicated their likelihood to persist in their careers. The research identifies a factor to be considered when seeking increased Indigenous retention in non-Indigenous dominated fields such as education, employment, professional careers or participation in political arenas.

Keywords: Indigenous sport, race relations, Australia, identity, rugby league

With the increasing engagement of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with Australian society, sport has been heralded as an avenue of positive race relations; but is this an accurate characterisation of Australian race relations? The research reported here examined Aboriginal males' involvement in rugby league. It is shown that Indigenous involvement in sport can be attributed more to a positive cycle of personal application and self-confidence than inherent physical ability or the supposed meritocracy of Australian sport. This positive spiral linked a belief in racial stereotypes of physicality, self-confidence in skill acquisition and practice, improved performance, belief reinforcement and, finally, reaffirming Indigenous identity formation. However, the positive spiral was not infallible. Every subject interviewed recounted occasions when racism experienced in sports jolted this positive construction of self. The research also considered the need for these Indigenous footballers to make frequent and regular transitions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous situations within Australian society. An individual's capacity to accommodate these shifts indicated the likelihood of their persisting with their sports careers. The research identifies a factor to be considered when seeking increased Indigenous participation in non-Indigenous-dominated activities such as education, employment and politics.

For many Indigenous peoples the opportunities for positive life experiences within a racist society, such as Australia, are limited; sport is one of the few options available. Vamplew and Stoddart (1994:17) wrote:

   Particular sports have attracted Aborigines partly because they are
   mainstream Australian activities which offered blacks a chance of success
   in a white world: indeed opportunities might have been given to Aborigines
   for their entertainment value as a special breed of gladiators.

In some instances, sport was portrayed as a way out of difficult social conditions--an avenue of social mobility, a ladder to social improvement. It has been quite lucrative on occasion. Out of some individual efforts in sports came opportunity for financial gain.

Some young men turned to professional sports or, as Tatz (1995a) characterised them, `stadium sports'. Good performances in boxing, foot-racing or football, whether it be Australian football or rugby league, could yield outstanding income. …