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Sports racism getting louder, yet witnesses stay silent

AFL great Nicky Winmar famously called out racism during a game in 1993 by lifting his jersey.

AFL great Nicky Winmar famously called out racism during a game in 1993 by lifting his jersey. Photo: Getty

Australian sports fans believe racist behaviour at matches is growing but most bystanders fail to report the actions of other spectators, a study has found.

A University of South Australia survey of more than 2000 spectators found that half of AFL fans had seen racist “barracking” at matches such as name calling.

This compared to 36 per cent of NRL fans and 27 per cent of A-League fans.

But only three per cent of AFL fans, two per cent of NRL fans and one per cent of A-League fans had used the phone-text “anti-social behaviour” hotline promoted at major stadiums to report racism.

Fans of all three codes examined in the study said the situation had worsened over the past two years.

The results revealed a significant discrepancy between observing racism and reporting it, UniSA senior lecturer Dr Jamie Cleland said.

“The effectiveness of penalties relies on people speaking up and the response of witnesses,” he said.

Racist barracking ranged from “casual” or incidental bigotry – where the speaker may be unaware that their language is racially derogatory – to hardcore racists who used crowd anonymity to express hatred toward others.

Poor behaviour by spectators at games and on social media continues to be an issue, Cleland said.

“All forms of abuse are being largely ignored by fellow fans, either by arguing ‘it’s part of … being a fan’ or simply not being willing to confront it – even anonymously,” he said.

The three professional leagues had put measures in place such as anonymous reporting hotlines and lifetime bans.

“But if racist behaviour and language isn’t consistently challenged, then this can reinforce and enhance an individual’s position and it will be more likely to continue,” Cleland said.

Racist behaviour or language by fans is often viewed as unintentional or non-malicious rather than a deeply ingrained prejudice, UniSA researcher Connor MacDonald said.

“Some of the AFL fans who took part in our study argued that watching live sport brings out irregular emotions in fans,” he said.

“They don’t think it’s ‘real’ racism and, at the very least, it’s not part of that person’s core beliefs and values.”

The AFL’s zero-tolerance approach to racial abuse has already led to life bans for nine spectators since the penalty was increased from a three-year suspension at the start of the 2023 season.

But Cleland said that unless bystanders were willing to report racism to authorities and challenge bad behaviour, it was unlikely racism in Australian men’s sport would be eradicated.

“The fight against bigotry can’t be left to Aboriginal people and people from culturally diverse backgrounds,” he said.

“The responsibility lies with white Australians, who are generally privileged not to be objects of racism, to call out poor behaviour.”

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-AAP

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