Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sport, Physical Activity and Urban Indigenous Young People

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sport, Physical Activity and Urban Indigenous Young People

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper challenges some of the commonly held assumptions and 'knowledges' about Indigenous young people and their engagement in physical activity. These include their 'natural' ability, and the use of sport as a panacea for health, education and behavioural issues. Data is presented from qualitative research undertaken with a group of 14 urban Indigenous young people with a view to 'speaking back' to these commentaries. This research draws on Critical Race Theory in order to make visible the taken-for-granted assumptions about Indigenous Australians made by the dominant white, Western culture. Multiple, shifting and complex identities were expressed in the young people's articulation of the place and meaning of sport and physical activity in their lives. They both engaged in, and resisted, dominant Western discourses regarding representations of Indigenous people in sport. The paper gives voice to these young people in an attempt to disrupt and subvert hegemonic discourses.


Current attitudes and discourses about Indigenous (1) young (2) and sport are steeped in Australia's colonial history. Historically, the positioning of Indigenous people in 'Western' sports was as the 'exotic other' rather than as 'real' players (see, for example, Sampson's article on the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of England, this volume). Their inclusion was in keeping with government policies of cultural assimilation and the production of the 'good' citizen but was tightly regulated through legislation that also controlled their capacity to move freely around the country (Booth and Tatz 2000). Not until the 1960s were Indigenous people present in sport in significant numbers, and while formal exclusion is no longer practised, discrimination and marginalisation have continued through more covert racism and socio-economic limitations (Hall 2001).

Positioning Indigenous sportspeople as the exotic other has also continued in contemporary Australia, where they are defined by their 'otherness' in contrast to the dominant (white, Western) culture's 'norm' (Anderson 2003). This is reflected in popular media portrayals and extends to government and sporting body policies that provide 'special' programs for Indigenous youth. Sporting programs can act as a new form of regulation and surveillance of Indigenous people (Markula and Pringle 2006), such as 'no school, no play', where Indigenous young people are measured against white, Western, middleclass norms (Moreton-Robinson 2000). In these contexts, sport has been promoted as a panacea for issues of anti-social behaviour, health and education (Cairnduff 2001; Dinan Thompson et al. 2008; Grimley 1996; Hall 2001). For example, the Australian Football League's (AFL) Kickstart program states:

The AFL seek to use Australian Football as the vehicle to improve the quality of life in communities throughout Australia. We are committed to working in partnership with Indigenous people and other stakeholders to improve employment, education, health and participation outcomes for Indigenous people and their communities at a local level (AFL 2009:1).

There have been few evaluations of these programs and although qualitative evidence points towards benefits for some young people (Dinan Thompson et al. 2008), there have been criticisms that sport has been (mis)promoted as a simple remedy to complex social problems in Australian society (Kickett-Tucker 1997). It is not my intention to uniformly denigrate the potential usefulness of these programs, but rather to raise questions about the assumptions they tend to hold and the claims they often make--particularly the essentialist notion that all Indigenous children both like sport and are good at sport.

These discourses of 'sport as a saviour' also persist in popular culture wherein sport is perceived as an avenue for success, as a tool for increased economic gain, as a means of social acceptance, and as a pathway out of poverty (Booth and Tatz 2000; Dinan Thompson et al. …

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