Sport, race, and the nation

Sport is a crucial institution for the gendering and racialisation of Australian national identity, and achieves this by generating a public focus on Anglo-white male athletes through their celebrification. In Australia, football and cricket are particularly significant cultural institutions in the construction of a shared national identity (Smart 2005, p. 2). There are a number of different codes of professional football played in Australia. Rugby league’s universal popularity is such that it is often simply referred to as ‘football’ or ‘footie’ (see Stewart 2007, p. 5). As this chapter goes on to discuss, league itself is collectively mediated as productive of a code of good sportsmanship that, in turn, is aligned with national values of egalitarianism and ‘Aussie mateship’ - values themselves fostered by a historic relationship to Anglo-whiteness (see Moreton-Robinson 2015).

Alongside the elements of national character attributed to particular sports, the elevation of talented individuals ‘has been virtually synonymous with the emergence and development of modern sport’ (Smart 2005, p. 2). Not all athletes are made to personify national ideals, however. The celebrification of sportspeople is not uniform. In an Australian settler colonial context, where Indigenous peoples have never ceded sovereignty and continue to assert their obligations to care for Country and exercise self-determination, racial discourses, and governmental exercises of racism have impacted on sports mobility and the capacity for Indigenous peoples to become celebrified. Protection-era restrictions on the mobility

Johnathan Thurston 57 of Aboriginal peoples in the latter part of the 19th and early-20th centuries meant Indigenous athletes had to get permission from the Director of Native Affairs to participate in sporting events. During this period, government policy was influenced by racist Social Darwinist thinking that viewed Indigenous peoples as a ‘dying race’ in need of ‘protection’, and was realised through extensive government control (see Rigney 2003). For example, Eddie Gilbert, a cricketer from Queensland in Jinibara territory in the 1930s, legally required a chaperone when he travelled for matches to prevent him from making ‘contact with either alcohol or white women, or both’ (Tatz 2015, p. 6). An early Aboriginal rugby league player, Frank Fisher, was denied a passport by the Queensland Government to play the game in England (Tatz 2015). Other athletes had their earnings confiscated by Native Affairs departments, and sports managers sometimes denied their clients were Aboriginal in order to advance their careers (Tatz 2015; see also Maynard 2012).

Australian sport, then, is fundamentally shaped by the perseverance of Indigenous peoples’ participation. In the case of football, in the rugby and Australian rules football (or Australian Football League [AFL], or ‘Aussie rules’) codes, recent decades have seen a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as well as Pasifika players (see Field 2013; Paul 2007). However, Colin Tatz (2016) cautions that the growing visibility of Indigenous athletes should not be read as an indication that racism is less prevalent in the institutions of and social spaces surrounding sport (see also Bruce and Hallinan 2001). This chapter follows this line of argument by examining the celebrity conditions and gendering practices of rugby league as making possible the visibility and celebration of particular kinds of performances of Indigenous subjectivities. It is crucial to emphasise sport is ‘neither inherently oppressive nor emancipatory’ (Hokowhitu 2013, p. 226). Rather, the growing media visibility of Indigenous athletes is productive of performances of anti-racism and advocacy of Indigenous causes important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which can come to be accommodated within the Australian media economies of sport as normative and, as I explicate in further detail below, ‘ordinary’.

Understood through the lens of biopower, sport is ‘one of several regulatory apparatuses that serve to normalize the population’ (Hokowhitu 2013, p. 238). It operates at both the anatomo-level of the body to discipline and render bodies productive (capable of particular kinds of labour or sporting competency) and at the level of the mass population (see Foucault 1979) to biopolitically normalise national standards of health, fitness, and citizenship that are constructed by governing authorities to be beneficial to the population as a whole. In a New Zealand context, the rugby union code has dominated the popular national imaginary, with the predomination of Maori players facilitating global recognition of the country’s sporting success. Hokowhitu (2013) traces the code’s settler colonial migration to and localisation in New Zealand to the production of knowledge about Maorimen as uniquely suited to the game. He argues ‘the biopolitical management of Maori depended on producing colonial apparati designed to dialogue with Maori via physical statements and to produce Indigenous bodies recognizable through their natural physicality’ (Hokowhitu 2013, p. 240). Racial discourse about the supposed ‘physicality’ of Maori were productive of an institutional alignment between rugby and Indigenous communities, where ‘sport was seen as an appropriate avenue where Maori savagery could be tamed and controlled’ (Hokowhitu 2013, p. 241) towards governmental ends.

In an Australian context, similar discourses operated with missionaries believing Indigenous peoples’ cricket playing was ‘proof of their progress in civilization’ (Cashman 2010, p. 103). Their inclusion in this sport had a disciplinary effect via transforming the individual body through cricket uniforms and training, as well as a biopolitical effect in supposedly illustrating the capacity for Indigenous men’s ‘civility’ en masse. For instance, another missionary stated: ‘Aborigines [sic] who know how to play cricket against the white teams are more civilized than if they knew the whole Summa of St Thomas by heart’ (Cashman 2010, p. 103). This quotation makes visible how ‘the use of sport as a means of social control and the imposition of colonial norms and values upon Indigenous people’ (Rigney 2003, p. 54) was discursively framed as being for Indigenous peoples own ‘good’. British sports’ gentlemanly codes of sportsmanship were understood to direct the aggression and competition exercised by athletes towards an acceptable moral endeavour. Discussing rugby’s origins in English public boys’ schools (what Australians would call ‘private’ schools), Niko Besnier (2014, p. 435) notes the pedagogical values of muscular Christianity, ‘which emphasized asceticism, racial purity, and masculinity’, were intended to mould young male bodies through sport to ready them for executing the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Such a position is consistent with Rudyard Kipling’s paternalist characterisation of white men’s obligation to model and inculcate ‘civility’ in Britain’s colonised subjects. Gentlemanly codes of behaviour are still evident in, for example, the traditional handshake between opposing teams at the end of a rugby match and its use to signal the resolution of on-field disputes (Gardiner 2003, p. 40). The historical continuation of these sporting codes of conduct helps to reinforce the ‘mythology of the colonial nation - robust, egalitarian, fair-minded, harmonious’ (Gardiner 2003, pp. 30-31). Rigney (2003, p. 52) suggests such myths also align with representations of British colonisation as ‘gentle and civilized’ (see also Hokowhitu 2013, p. 242).

As this overview of cricket’s and rugby’s colonial origins indicates, the application of sport to Indigenous bodies had two racialising effects. On the one hand, colonisers viewed Indigenous peoples as being pre-disposed to laziness which the colonial importation of exercise could ameliorate (Cashman 2010, p. 108). On the other hand, colonisers supposed Indigenous peoples had an aptitude for corporeal rather than intellectual endeavours that rendered them suitable for sport. Such racialising and racist discourses persisted well

Johnathan Thurston 59 into the 20th century. For example, one sports commentator in the 1980s suggested: ‘The Australian Aboriginal [sic] has a fascinating facility for sports which demand whippy reflexes and strong backs. Periodically he has played spectacular roles in Australian sports, ranging from the dramatic delivery of knockout punches ... to flashing speed on the wings of football teams’ (in Hallinan 1991, p. 70). Whether ‘the Indigenous body’ is viewed negatively as indolent or positively disposed to physical achievement, such ‘knowledge’ converges on the colonial discourse that the Indigenous body can be successfully disciplined, in the Foucauldian sense, through sport.

Given that power/knowledge is productive (Foucault 1980), both the operations of power and the bodies through which it is exercised can transform and change in relation to dominant discourses. A famous example of this productive capacity to both resist dominant discourses and begin to normalise previously marginalised bodies within the cultural space of sport occurred during the 1993 St Kilda versus Collingwood AFL game when Indigenous player Neil (Nicky) Winmar lifted his shirt and pointed defiantly to his black body in response to racist comments from the crowd (see Gardiner 2003). This gesture was pivotal to publicising what Greg Gardiner (2003, p. 30) describes as the ‘code of racism’ that has structured Indigenous athletes’ participation in Australian sports. Winmar’s symbolic act in reappropriating discourses of race to produce a counter-attack in the same body (Foucault 1980), by re-signifying the racial taunts as a declaration of racial pride, helped facilitate the development of anti-racist codes of conduct for the AFL and other football codes in Australia.

In this section, I have discussed the role of sport in gendering and racialising national identity and have touched on the colonial dimensions of organised sport in Australia in order to avoid presenting a narrative of Indigenous participation in sport as evidence of racial equality in contemporary Australia. I turn now to a consideration of the mediatised nature of sport in order to provide a context for the attention and celebrity economies through which Thurston is mediated.

 
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