Have you ever picked up the newspaper and felt like there's a lot of column inches given to discussions about rugby league or cricket results or tennis, and not enough about public education or preventive health care or how a carbon pricing scheme could help our economy?
Yeah. Me too.
But while I do feel like the conversation is unbalanced at times, I don't want Fairfax and ABC to fire all their sports writers. Sometimes it's more than just a game.
All of those big policy issues, like health and education, are important, and we should be doing more to have constructive conversations about them. One of the things that is missing from many of our public debates is a willingness to see our shared values in others. This is the reason why it's so easy to marginalise a group based on their cultural background, gender, or socio-economic situation. When you are only seeing difference, and never taking note of your common ground, it is easier to avoid listening to the other person's point of view. But sport is one area in which Australians can come together.
The person sitting next to you at the stadium might have a very different life experience to your own, but when you're both cheering for the same team, it doesn't matter: you're on the same side.
What's even more fun is when the person sitting next to you is cheering for the other team. If you've not had this experience, I encourage you to try it the next time you go to a game. You may find yourself sharing some appreciation for a team you don't usually support with the person next to you. I've done this at everything from a local roller derby game, to an Australia vs India cricket game. While I cheer loudest when it's my team that's scoring points, it feels good to show some appreciation for good gameplay by the other team as well.
Our sporting history has not always been good. It's been very heavily gender-biased, homophobic, and racist on far too many occasions. But things are changing: women's AFL and cricket is getting TV airtime, there's a growing awareness and willingness to say no to homophobia in sport, and we're having some very positive conversations about the need to end racist abuse on the sporting field.
Sport is not just about physical health and fitness, or keeping people entertained. It's also about the human condition. When we head into the stands to cheer for our team, we're channelling positive energy into another human being's attempts to be faster, stronger, and more enduring than we ourselves are capable of. We are showing our desire to see another person reach their potential and become something better than they were. Sporting achievement has a transformative effect — it turns a kid who could run fast or throw a ball into something superhuman.
Life imitates sport?
Pushing for improvements in the way we treat each other within sports can lead to improvements in other areas of our lives. Seeing people who shout racist abuse ejected from a sportsground can lead to more people standing up against racism on the street or at school. Putting women's sport on TV, paying female AFL players the same as male (or in the case of our basketball teams, making sure they have the same standards of travel and accommodation), and publicly talking about what's wrong with interviewers focusing on female athletes attractiveness rather than ability, has an impact on social values.
For many of us, it's much less confronting to talk about pay equality for tennis players than in our own workplaces.
But if we can get our heads around the ideological reasons why pay equality is worth striving for in tennis, then maybe it's not so hard to support pay equality in other professions.
If we can convince ourselves that it's a good idea to give equal airtime to televised coverage of women's sport, then maybe we can convince ourselves to also give equal airtime to women on current affairs shows or as newspaper columnists.
If we see an athlete with a disability achieving great things on the sporting field, it's not so hard to imagine a person with a disability achieving great things everywhere else in their lives.
If a kid who has grown up in poverty can become a sporting superstar, then surely they can also become a university professor if only we had a better funded public education system. And there we are, back to talking about the serious social policy issues that we need to address.
Playing sports together won't suddenly end the Australian Government's policies on asylum seekers, climate change, or welfare reform. But it will give us a moment of perspective, where we can see that there are ways for us to get along with each other. If we can bring that feeling of wanting to see another person succeed out of the sports field and into other parts of our lives, we are capable of achieving amazing things.