“Shut up and dribble”? What the Australian left can learn from the players’ strike

Wildcat strikes in major US sporting leagues highlight political inaction in Australian sport

NBA players kneel in support of Black Lives Matter on court.

The NBA players’ strikes over the last month have been extraordinary. To halt one of the biggest entertainment enterprises in the world in any context, let alone in the midst of such unprecedented economic and social upheaval is something to be marvelled at. Protest is not by any means new to sport, but what made these strikes different were the sheer scale and ferocity with which they spread. 

This was the first time the four American major sports leagues had simultaneously staged a co-ordinated strike action, in a time when not even a global pandemic could stop play. All of the players’ demands were met, including every single NBA arena being turned into a polling station for the upcoming American elections, despite the majority of NBA teams being in Republican states with conservative owners. Within hours, the strike had spread outside of the four major leagues, with Naomi Osaka forfeiting her semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters in solidarity. 

The Black Lives Matter movement in Australia has experienced marked setbacks and ongoing stagnation in comparison to some of the victories it has accomplished internationally, particularly in the United States. While supposedly progressive state governments in Australia have continued, with a public mandate, to over-police and violently target minority communities of colour, the LAPD has been defunded and the Minneapolis Police Department disbanded. 

In early June, we watched incredulously as New South Wales Police attempted to shut down the first major BLM rallies in Sydney through the Supreme Court, on the same day that the state Government endorsed crowd exemptions for the NRL, and months onwards as professional sporting codes and their associated crowds have continued to enjoy a seemingly unearned privileged role in the nation’s ongoing battle with coronavirus. 

Further to this, the focus in terms of restarting community activities has disproportionately been on grassroots sport. It seems utterly incongruous with the now-sacrosanct notion of social distancing that sweaty, huffing contact sports continue to be played across Sydney while anyone who can’t kick a 35 metre checkside punt is told by the Premier to limit their social interaction and movement, wear a mask and stay at home. 

Herein lies an untapped opportunity for political organising that has otherwise been left completely alone by the left. Sport in this country is so deeply intertwined with our collective understanding of identity that it bridges in several senses the class divide that otherwise presents insurmountable challenges of access to political organisation. 

The challenges the BLM movement in Australia has faced have been identified as stemming from an inability to broaden the spectrum of people that are engaged by the various campaigns associated with it. Sport brings together such a variety of sectors of society, both at a professional level and at a community level, and simultaneously is largely considered and desired to be insulated from the winds of social change and justice. Sociologists Peter Kaufman and Eli Wolff, for example, argue there are important various parallels between participation in sport and successful progressive activism, namely: social consciousness, meritocracy, responsible citizenship, and interdependency. 

This is not a novel concept: there is a long history of sport being intertwined with political activism. In European football, for example, club rivalries have long represented class divides and ethnic identity. But this has fallen flat in an Australian context — with the developing professionalism of sport in most male sporting codes through the 1990s (and more recently in major women’s codes) came a capitalistic desire to sanitise it of its potential to represent mass concerns about social injustice. The rapid growth of most codes into multi-billion dollar businesses that are reliant on fundamentally not upsetting the establishment has led to an extremely limited view of what social change can look like in a sporting context; at best, meaningless PR, and at worst utter tone deafness. 

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this was the AFL’s bushfire relief charity match at the beginning of this year, for which mining conglomerate Rio Tinto was the primary sponsor. More recently, the Collingwood Football Club have led a consortium of AFL clubs supporting the “Free the Flag” campaign, whilst simultaneously leaking against ex-player Heritier Lumumba during an ongoing internal investigation into the racist club culture that drove him to retirement. 

If the NBA’s strikes tell us nothing else, it is that activism must come from players and supporters; we cannot expect codes to lead the way. But in Australia, we have a long way to go. Almost every reference to political activism from sportspeople in this country comes post-career, and centres on the flawed arena of nonprofits and corporate luncheons. It cannot remain this way. The “shut up and dribble” mantra is adopted enthusiastically by the right, but also inadvertently by the left in its refusal to engage with sport as a mechanism for progress. Sport, in a moment of multiplying streaming platforms and fragmented news media, is one of the last forms of entertainment that whole countries watch together. It carries unparalleled potential to reach mass audiences, allowing communities who may never otherwise engage in social justice movements to contextualise them in the familiar sporting arena. If the left is serious about building mass movements, we would do well to use it.

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