Don’t mention the election: why are Australia’s sports stars staying silent? – The Guardian

As the federal election nears, athlete activists are seemingly absent from the nation’s political playing field
As a rule, politicians in Australia love sport. And they have no qualms using sport for electoral ends.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s suburban dad persona is underpinned by his support of NRL team, the Cronulla Sharks. He is their number one ticket-holder and frequently pictured in Sharks apparel, even if some question the authenticity of his fandom.
Morrison thrives in sporting environments – running bottles for the Wallabies, enjoying a fast lap at the Bathurst 1000 and joining the commentary box at the fourth Ashes test. His opponent, Anthony Albanese, is an even bigger rugby league fan – the opposition leader’s Twitter profile proudly notes his life-membership of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
It is not always easy to determine whether an individual politician’s sporting allegiances are genuine or strategic; Labor has condemned Morrison’s sporting image, claiming he “switched codes and switched teams”. But there is no doubting that sports funding is determined through a political lens.
Indeed recent analysis from Guardian Australia found that the two major parties have pledged over $40m to sporting clubs that benefited from the sport rort program. And a website updated by sports researcher Greg Blood lists a staggering number of sporting promises made during this election: almost 100 from the Coalition (ranging from $200,000 for a refurbished basketball stadium in Canberra to $30m for an aquatic centre in Western Australia) and 87 at last count from Labor (including $500,000 for a skate park in Merimbula and $8m for a swimming pool in Kalgoorlie).
All of which makes a mockery of that often-repeated claim that sport is not political. It also underscores the hypocrisy of Morrison’s message to Cricket Australia, after they dropped the label “Australia Day”, that the peak body should have “a bit more focus on cricket, and a bit less focus on politics.”
But it also prompts the question: where are our sports stars in the political debate?
Globally, athletes are increasingly using their profile and platform for the greater good (even if some remain happy to take money from brutal autocratic regimes).Yet as election day looms, Australian athletes are staying silent. Ironic, given that politicians are happy associating themselves with sport and pouring money into sporting infrastructure in the hope of winning votes. Even the campaign of Canberra’s Senate hopeful, former Wallabies captain David Pocock, has been short on celebrity sporting endorsements (although some have praised him on social media).
The absence of political campaigning by athletes is all the more conspicuous given the current trend towards issue-based activism. The Cool Down, a movement led by Pocock’s partner, Emma, has recruited hundreds of Australian athletes to call for climate action. More than 260 AFL players came together to form advocacy group AFL Players for Climate Action. In January, the Professional Footballers Association announced support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Yet this activism has not translated into party-political advocacy. Given the significant differences between political parties on climate action, on Indigenous constitutional recognition, and other major social issues, this is perplexing. It is a short leap from calling for climate action to campaigning for the election of a party that takes the climate crisis seriously. But it is a leap Australia’s athletes have not taken (at least, not yet).
Why? There are a few issues at play. Even if sport is inherently political, there are still many sports fan who avoid that reality. If we don’t want sport to be political, we don’t want our athletes to be political either. Collectively, we deny them political agency by compelling them to stay in their lane. The tabloid backlash is easily imaginable, the “stick to sport” headlines. Emma Pocock’s organisation, Frontrunners, admits as much on its website: “Athletes face real barriers to engaging with issues beyond sport”.
Another factor is money. Athlete activism comes with commercial risk – players fear alienating sponsors, fans and clubs. NBA legend Michael Jordan famously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” One need only look to Colin Kaepernick, whose NFL career was effectively ended by his political advocacy, for a vivid example of the potential consequences. Given many high performance sports, and athletes are effectively bankrolled by the federal government, political activism comes with heightened risk. “They are worried about biting the hand the feeds them,” one observer told me.
The same is true for sporting administrators. Both the Coalition and Labor are enthusiastic patrons of sport – through high-performance funding, support for major tournaments and community infrastructure. “It is plainly in the financial interests of sport to remain non-partisan,” a well-placed observer suggested. The treatment of sport as exceptional, and above politics, has gifted sports a privileged legal position – to the detriment of players, who in many cases lack the same rights as other Australian workers, while enriching sporting codes and club owners.
In some cases it may be a strategic decision. I am aware of athletes who have declined requests to provide political endorsements, even in cases of ideological alignment, in a desire to preserve their neutrality. Perhaps athletes can be more politically effective if they remain impartial, able to engage with all sides of the debate. Athletes might be better placed to take their communitiesand fan-base on a journey of change by remaining non-partisan.
This may be so. But their absence from the political playing field is conspicuous. On the eve of one of the most consequential federal elections in decades, Australia’s athletes are largely silent. Will that silence last?

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