Sport can and must play a bigger role in social justice, empowering young people and playing a broader role in community engagement. They were some of the simple and powerful messages that repeatedly emerged when some of Australia’s greatest athletes joined a wide-ranging conversation in Torrens University Australia’s third Speakers Series event.
Sharing their expertise was AFL legend Adam Goodes, NRL icons Paul Harrigan and Joel Thompson, netball captain Caitlin Basset, cricket captain Michael Clarke, and SBS sports presenter Lucy Zelić. Tim Gilbert steered the discussion while Adjunct Professor Craig Foster reprised his role as a sports journalist to ask some pointed questions.
All panellists agreed that today’s students are well placed to become the socially responsible sports leaders of tomorrow.
“They’re already looking at you and I and going ‘what’s wrong with your generation?’. So, for me, they are the future, and we need to keep educating them and keep challenging them,” shared Adam Goodes.
“But also giving them platforms and a voice because their voice is only going to get stronger and louder.”
Craig Foster: Torrens University’s own former Socceroo
Craig Foster admits that he’s often surprised when others don’t see equality as normal.
“I’ve spent 45 years in football which is diversity by definition and also 20 years at SBS, which is multiculturalism. So, sometimes it’s easy to forget that people don’t live in that environment.”
Mr Foster points out that many professional sports in Australia run wonderful programs for minority communities but struggle with a response when those communities are in trouble.
“We don’t say anything.”
“It’s like, you’re my teammate and I’m gonna fight for you. If you’re on the field and you get abused, well that’s not right, because that’s going to affect us winning a game. But what happens when you get abused outside, and then what about your family and your kids and their kids? Should I say something, or not?”
In the past, professional sporting bodies have been reluctant to raise their voice for a group of people who have the same rights as us – to be treated as human beings. But, as Mr Foster highlighted, in the future, the sport industry must become comfortable speaking on these areas because athletes are already there.
“The thing about athletes is they’re brave. They’re really courageous, but I’d just like to see sport accept some more of that responsibility.”
Paul Harragon: Chief of NRL’s Newcastle Knights
Even as a player, speaking up for what is right and just can be a complicated issue. Paul Harragon captained his team to the premiership in 1997, after literally driving his players down a long and challenging road.
It was the year of the Super League war, when the world of rugby league was turned upside down. As Mr Harrogan explains it, Rupert Murdoch’s company wanted the broadcast rights to rugby league which were owned by Kerry Packer – so Murdoch decided to start his own league.
Half of the teams in what was then the Australian Rugby League (ARL) had already left for Super League when Mr Harrogan was called to Sydney for a meeting with Murdoch’s team.
“When it came to the money it was just mind blowing. I couldn’t believe it. I remember going my life just changed, but how am I going to tell the original administration that I’m going to Super League,” reflects Mr Harrogan.
When he spoke to the ARL, Mr Harrogan realised that Super League offered no support for the junior rugby league competitions, or the community that was an integral part of the Newcastle club.
Mr Harrogan gave up the money to stay with the ARL, but when he returned to Newcastle, he found Super League putting the hard-word on all of his teammates. Realising that he was one of the few players who had listened to both Super League’s and ARL’s propositions, the captain wanted to give his players the same opportunity.
Unfortunately, the ARL executives were overwhelmed trying to defend their league and couldn’t leave Sydney to get to Newcastle.
“So that’s where I had to go to the local rental – rent the lowest minibus you’ve ever seen. Got all the boys in the back and drove them down to Sydney. And I was known as a bus driver for a while.”
Super League operated for one year in 1997. Having 22 teams in two competitions spread fans and sponsorship very thinly, forcing many clubs into financial trouble. In 1998, the two leagues were combined with many clubs retired to history as the NRL was whittled down to 14 teams.
Mr Harrogan and the Newcastle Knights became premiers in 1997, but more importantly saved their club and its connections to the Newcastle community.
Caitlin Bassett: Captain of Australian Diamonds netball team
As a gangly 16-year-old, Caitlin Bassett wanted to be a boy because she had never seen a female elite athlete. The same year she got her first professional netball contract of $50, which was confusing.
“I was like, oh, am I paying you that money?”
Still at high school, the future back-to-back championship winner was just happy to be given her uniform and travel costs every second weekend.
“I think the top paid player was paid probably $11,000 for the whole season. So now, the young girls in our group, get a minimum of $30,000. That’s the minimum wage now for an elite netballer.”
While still a low wage for those who play sport as a profession, Ms Bassett is grateful to former players who raised their voice, spoke to politicians and fought to bring more attention and sponsorship to netball.
“I stick around, and I love it because of the girls who fought for me when I was young, I now want to do the same thing for the ones below me.”
She’s also keen to achieve equality in the sport by championing men playing netball.
“In Perth they have a men’s state league at the moment and when we’re preparing for big competitions we always play against the Australian men’s team.”
“There’s nothing like playing against a man to really demoralise yourself. They can run so fast and jump so high! I’m six foot four, and they can reject every single one of my shots!”
“I’m looking forward to the men’s team growing in years to come.”
Michael Clarke: Former Australian Cricket Captain
Reflecting on how much professional sport has evolved over the last decade, former Australian Cricket Captain Michael Clarke draws a line between a 90s era legend and current player David Warner.
“I think the greatest example is you look at someone like Shane Warne who refused to do any sort of fitness work. His cardio was bowling in the nets for an hour or sitting at the bar, compared to someone like David Warner, who goes to the gym every day.”
Mr Clarke recalls training from his early days as a professional athlete in 2003, while his sister was a non-professional athlete training for triathlons. On reflection, he wasn’t training at all – especially not compared to today’s players.
“You watch the boys and the girls train, in regard to the Australian teams, and they have the full dedication. It’s 24/7, it’s a full-time job. You know your responsibilities.”
Still, he’s keen to see a balance between professionalism and love for the sport, which is why it’s important to bring former players in to work with younger players.
“You think of Allen boarder, David Boon, the Chappells – these guys didn’t get paid. So, they played for one reason and one reason only. That was because they loved it.”
Adam Goodes: AFL legend and Australian of the Year
As a former Australian Rules Football player, Adam Goodes sees a clear path to education as a career opportunity aside from playing. He describes sport as being the great leveller throughout his education.
“We moved around quite a fair bit as a family. We went to six different primary schools, two different high schools. Sport was the way that we broke down those barriers that you face when you’re the new skinny black kid or new Indigenous family moving into the community.”
His mum also made sure that his love for sport would translate into good grades.
“Sport for me was also the reason I stuck at school. The way mum used sport was for us to stay at school, to get good grades, because if we didn’t, she wouldn’t let us play.”
Mr Goodes refined that thinking as co-founder of Go Foundation, which is creating opportunities for Indigenous youth through education.
In a broader educational context, Mr Goodes is looking forward to seeing the students of today gaining employment as the future generation of sports administrators – confident that they’ll get the balance right on social responsibility.
“What I’m seeing at universities is this colour-blindness, which is so refreshing. I’ve gone to maybe 20 graduation ceremonies and it just melts my heart, seeing these young people from all different types of backgrounds coming up and accepting their honour.”
“It makes me feel proud that, that generation are going to be our future leaders.”
Joel Thompson: NRL player and Captain of the Indigenous All Stars team
Like Adam Goodes, Joel Thompson had to do well at school to be able to play sport.
“I was the only person in my family to go through and do my HSC, which was a big thing.”
For a long time, Mr Thompson thought that rugby was his sole passion in life. But when life started going off the rails, he received some advice that broadened his horizons.
“You should go out and share your story. There’s a lot of kids out there that would love to hear your story, that need that hope.”
Mr Thompson went to youth detention centres to talk to young people to see if he could help them. It turned out to have an even more profound effect on himself.
“I knew what the suffering was out there and how hard it was for a lot of these kids. You know, I was one of them I felt like I wanted to make a difference. I felt like it was my purpose.”
The Mindset Project is the formalisation of Mr Thompson’s conversations with the community. For his efforts he was awarded the Ken Stephen medal which recognises NRL players for their commitment to the community off the field.
Lucy Zelić: SBS sports presenter
Hearing Joel Thompson’s story reminded Lucy Zelić of one of her brothers – the same one who assigned her as goalkeeper while he practiced football.
“There were Ds and Es through everything because his sole focus was purely dedicated to the sport.”
“Now, so much of that has changed, because we’re understanding that sport is not forever and you’re having to think about careers after your time in sport has come to an end.”
Courses like Torrens University’s Bachelor of Business and MBA in Sports Management are empowering students with transferable skills that make better business administrators and business leaders in general.
For Ms Zelić it’s about harnessing all the benefits of sport and using that power for good.
“Sport gives us the opportunity to really forget about life’s woes and invest in something that makes us feel alive. It connects us to something that transcends all of our issues, that transcends all of our beliefs.”
“We’re able to come together and to really commit to something that makes us feel alive.”
The third Speakers Series event closed with an international call from Real Madrid Graduate School. It was an early Spanish morning for FIFA legend Emilio Butragueno who explained how the school is connected to the Real Madrid Football Club.
“Real Madrid is deeply involved in our graduate school which makes this academic project unique. More than 80 Real Madrid executives are part of the faculty – each program has a top Real Madrid executive as co-director so that gives an exclusive privilege for our students to learn directly from those who are running different departments here in the club.”
Real Madrid Graduate School also provides an exclusive privilege for Torrens University students who are studying the Master of Business Administration (Sports Management). As part of the collaboration, these students have the opportunity to broaden their Australian Education by attending Real Madrid Graduate School on a field trip.
Mr Butragueno offered an insight into what they could expect when they get there.
“Our students are not just students, they are human beings, and we feel that we have to help them grow. We consider values to be very important for our life. They determine our life. They shape our personality.”
With support like that, our students are well on their way to gaining jobs as the socially responsible sports leaders of tomorrow.
All of our speakers had much more to say on the topic of social justice in sports management. You can watch the full conversation at Speakers Series – Sports Management.
To improve your employability as a socially responsible sports leader of tomorrow, check out the full range of Sports Management courses and degrees at Torrens University.
You can take your first step towards social justice by signing up for our free Bcorp short course today.
And be sure to register for the remaining Speaker Series talks.
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