We need leadership – in sport and society

10 May 2016 Comments 5

I had an interesting experience towards the end of last year. It occurred when I visited the CEO of a prominent local sporting team to brief them about SKINS (then) forthcoming social marketing campaign around supporting LGBT individuals in the sporting environment, known as #RainbowLaces.

By way of background, our campaign was done in conjunction with local LGBT advocacy group Pride in Diversity. They have developed a Pride in Sport Index, under the auspices of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Sports Commission, focused on anti-homophobia measures in sport and which benchmarks the progress of major sporting codes in improving the environment for LGBT individuals.

The campaign was an unashamed extrapolation of the UK’s Stonewall Foundation’s #RainbowLaces campaign, for which we received their blessing before embarking upon it. I was also aware of a Melbourne campaign conducted by Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation to support organ donation awareness, and we received their blessing too.

We picked a weekend at the beginning of April in which all four football codes plus netball and surfing were playing. We dubbed it the ‘Rainbow Round of Sport’, and invited the governing bodies, clubs and their athletes to take part. We made available for free 125,000 pairs of #RainbowLaces to grassroots sporting clubs and individuals through our retail partners.

In explaining all this to the CEO, I thought the CEO would say “Fantastic, Jaimie. We’re in.”

What he actually said really floored me. “What would you bother doing that for?” he asked me. “You’re throwing money away! You must be crazy!”

He went on to give me the benefit of his view that we would be better off simply not doing it as no-one is interested in ‘Mother Theresa moments in sport’.

This CEO wasn’t the only one in Australian sport who failed to show any leadership by joining us in the #RainbowLaces campaign. In fact, he may well have been one of the more honest of them in his reaction, because what some others did was to hide behind the cloak of “commercial considerations”. They closed-off the opportunity for their sport or their club to participate.

To be clear, we were not asking any individual sportsperson to ‘come out’. We were not asking any sporting team to wear something that had SKINS branding – our Rainbow Laces were unbranded. And it didn’t matter to us if they had a partnership with Nike or Puma or any other sports brand.

Yet, here we were, an Australian brand partnering with a local non-profit advocacy group helping to raise awareness about an issue that should matter to sporting CEOs – anti-homophobia in sport – and we were met by quite a few (not all) with, if not resistance, then at least a dead-hand.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, however.

If ever there was an example of how sport is a microcosm for broader societal values, this is it.

Regrettably, too often in recent years, we have also seen serial examples of our political leaders who are less concerned about doing the right thing for the country than self-advancement.

If we consider, for example, the issue of anti-homphobia in sport with which #RainbowLaces was concerned, the extension into broader society gets us to one of the significant moral injustices of our time – marriage inequality. Just as the sporting CEOs could not get past their “commercial considerations”, many politicians cannot get past either their personal view of love and marriage – as if they have the right to decide it for others – or worse, the need to compromise their values and what they know is right, to get through the politics.

Sport and society are riddled with examples of people who play it safe, and who fail to stand-up for what is right. Yet sport has the power to represent everything that we value and which we hope would shape society. However, the good traits, such as integrity, team work, fair play, respect and hard work, are constantly confronted and compromised by corruption, greed, injustice, a sense of entitlement and self-interest. In sport, we only have to look at the IAAF, IOC or FIFA to enumerate countless examples. Worse, when people do stand-up for what is right, they are greet pejoratively as ‘whistleblowers’ and treated abominably.

No wonder there is a continuous erosion of trust – in sport and in society.

I rail against this. I believe that, in sport and in society, we shouldn’t have to lower expectations, but raise standards. Sport can and should be a leader; sport can and should play a role in advancing civil society.

This is what SKINS is about. Sure, we make sensational sports wear. But what we stand for is championing, affecting and influencing all that we value in sport as an example to the society in which we live. Our vision is a world in which sports inspires society and we want to use sport to change the world.

P.S. By the way, thanks to the clubs, sporting codes and individual athletes that did take part including the Australian Rugby Union, Waratahs, Brumbies, Reds, Penrith Panthers, NQ Cowboys, GWS Giants, Brisbane Lions, Sydney FC, Adelaide United, NSW Swifts and former world champion surfer Joel Parkinson.

This blog was written for the Sport Australia Hall of Fame/Victoria University forum on Integrity in Sport, held on 9th May in Melbourne, and was first published on their websites and in the forum program. You can see a recording of the forum here.

5 comments on "We need leadership – in sport and society"

  1. Craiggg on 10 May 2016

    Good piece – I like sport and society in a synchronistic cohesion ??

  2. Elliot Hill on 10 May 2016

    Fascinating and troubling in equal measure. A reminder that social change and cohesion is not a given and that it needs to be fought for and advocated vigorously. Sport occupies a unique position. If correctly leveraged, sport not only has the capability to enable us to marvel at human achievement and seek closer unity through a shared passion (both as spectator and participant) – but it also presents us with the real opportunity to effect significant societal change. To build community, challenge outdated thinking and for us to strive to better ourselves beyond the field of play. Best wishes in your continued efforts to stick your head above the parapet, to challenge bigotry and honor your principles and values regardless of resistance.

  3. Felicity on 11 May 2016

    Love your comment Elliot.

    And always enjoy your blogs and your efforts Jaimie. Keep going.

  4. Michele Verroken on 13 May 2016

    Sadly, and from experience, sports ‘leaders’ can be driven by a no compromise culture that prioritises medals above people. Anyone asking for integrity in the process is at risk of being sidelined. As John Amechi rightly observed (applied to this context) sporting integrity should not be left to the minority to fight for.

  5. Rhys Jaggar on 8 June 2016

    I think you’ll find it crossing all areas of sports leadership, not just anti-homophobia, this acting for self-advancement, not the cause of sports participation.

    Take London’s 2012 Olympics. It was made quite clear to LORD Sebastian Coe that the UK public would support a bid based on promoting sports participation not on ‘letting a few East End wide boys make hay at the taxpayers’ expense’. So what happened? The Olympic Village not kitted out with functioning kitchens, then sold half price to Arabs (how’s that for a pre-Olympic bung agreement, eh?) The swimming pools not designed with legacy mode in mind, spending >£100m extra on ‘futuristic designs’ rather than considering the next 50 years of public usage of publicly funded sports infrastructure. Pandering to IOC egos. A ticketing website so corrupt that 18 attempts to secure tickets advertised by email as being available at certain times led to 18 failures to secure a single ticket, with plenty of empty seats at top venues to make genuine UK sports fans apoplectic with rage. Not designing the stadium with legacy mode in mind, leading to West Ham Utd fleecing the taxpayer for £800m (state aid by any other name) with a 99 year peppercorn rent and the CEO being given a peerage for trashing the interests of the taxpayer (which says that David Cameron doesn’t know the first principles of how to select people worthy of a peerage, does he?)

    Lots of ‘legacy programmes’ failing due to CEOs of sports bodies being obsessed with ‘running a business’ not a sports participation and talent management programme.

    It’s not all terrible, mind you. I grade the UK Olympic effort at B with a verbal warning rather than a yellow card. But If I or Mr Fuller had been on the DCMS Select committee in the House of Commons doing the post-Olympic forensic audit, there would have been plenty of blood on the walls, plenty of reputations for fiscal probity up in flames and the President of the IAAF maybe mortally wounded prior to even being able to stand for that poisoned chalice of a position……..