Watch the video to enjoy the full conversation.
On Wednesday 24 October Victoria Law Foundation presented The Law and You Forum at Federation Square, the second in our annual series exploring an intriguing area of the law.
This year’s topic, Is Sport Playing by the Rules? provoked insights on how sport’s separate legal ecosystems - with different rules, courts, judges and sanctions - compare to general legal standards and processes. In a wide-ranging discussion, panellists raised issues including violence, sledging and workers compensation, and the different treatments in sport, compared with community expectations.
Our four outstanding panellists were –
- Rob Stary – defence lawyer and lifelong Bulldogs fan
- Professor Russ Hoye, Director Latrobe Sport
- Associate Professor Kate Seear, Monash University and Springvale Monash Legal Service and Outer Sanctum podcaster
- Dr Bridie O’Donnell, Head of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation Victoria physician and champion cyclist.
The consensus was that - generally speaking - sport needed to lift its game. Greater consistency and transparency would build confidence in sporting bodies to handle their responsibilities in the interests of all concerned – players, officials, spectators and the general public – and make their legal systems more robust.
You really need to listen to the fascinating and free flowing discussion, but here are a few of the comments made.
Rob Stary kicked it off describing how his view of gratuitous on-field violence had shifted over time.
‘I was a typical white male devotee of footy (Footscray) and I loved the tribalism, I hated the ruling elite, and every time we played any of the counter revolutionaries I was happy to see gratuitous violence being meted out on our class enemies. That was my starting premise. But I have come a long way. It’s been a slow maturation, but it’s there.
‘Now I understand we are talking about an industry that is worth well more than one billion a year. It’s a massive commercial industry. For 100-odd years we believed in the tribalism… and that we could deal with the various indiscretions on the field, but we are well beyond that.'
He spoke of the infamous Andrew Gaff incident and described the difference between the way he was treated compared with a person in the community taking the same action.
‘So, what I really can’t countenance now is the inconsistency in which we view the white male, elite sports people, and who have ‘diplomatic immunity’, that’s my grievance.’
Sledging, abuse and discrimination
Russell Hoye said that verbal abuse of the kind common on-field would be completely unacceptable at his work, a university. If you did it ‘you’d be out’. Yet sledging is accepted and reported on as a part of the gamesmanship of the culture, particularly of male sport. ‘At the same time there is outrage about ball tampering, but not [sledging]. It just seems to be ridiculous,’ he said.
Kate Seear reminded us that some of the sledging was actually about the wives, girlfriends, mothers of players – and that their reputations could be trashed in very graphic ways and in circumstances where they have no power and no control.
Rob Stary said it was not uncommon to hear homophobic and racial slurs out in the stand ‘but thankfully, it’s dissipating. That’s not to say it’s non-existent. From a cultural point of view things are changing. I hope that at the professional sports level things are changing.’
Bridie O’Donnell wasn’t so sure things had changed much, citing the example of Sydney Swan Adam Goodes’ and his departure from the game.
‘I think that was the most shameful thing for that sport and for Australia ...because really what we’re saying is we’re okay to have racist taunts. That was message that was delivered to him, and that was appalling.’
Bridie spoke too about the experience of discrimination as a woman in cycling, the dangers for young women and girls, the need for much greater transparency and higher standards of sports administration.
Sport as a workplace
Panellists wondered about the sustainability of some sports given there is generally no workers compensation for sports people except on race tracks – which is particularly relevant in cases of injury such as concussion.
Russell Hoye said it was a ticking time-bomb for high contact codes like AFL, the NRL and Rugby Union. He asked who will pay for this, when in ten, fifteen, twenty years when the science is better, and you can prove causality between playing sport and the long-term effects when you’re 40, 45, 50?
But there is also the voluntary assumption of risk as Kate Seear pointed out.
As she said, if you voluntarily assume a risk, there’s a strong view that you can’t then claim compensation after the fact.
However, the problem with sport being exempt from that kind of statutory regime has become very stark with the emergence of the AFLW, she said. Women play sport on a part time basis, with arrangements which are vastly different to men playing AFL.
‘At the end of a very short season often players need to return to work, might even go to to work at night in a factory after finishing a game, as they aren’t being paid a fulltime wage. And so the implications for those women of getting hurt in the workplace and not having the full suite of protections available to them are starkly different to the men.