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a Black woman wearing a black singlet with a yellow square and Adidas logo on the front, and a red cap. She is holding a tennis racquet and hitting a ball.

Naomi Osaka, 2018. Image: Peter Menzel, Flickr (CC BY-SA, 2.0)

Professional sport is intertwined with the Australian identity. Many of us experience a sense of pride from the achievement of elite athletes, but data by McCrindle reveals that 56 per cent of Australian spectators believe athletes and sporting bodies have no business taking a stand for social justice and political causes, and that they’re better off just ‘playing the game.’

The idea of sports activism is a complex topic. Participating or spectating in sport is something most do for fun, to unwind and catch up with mates. With bad news making the headlines daily, it’s understandable to want a bubble where no one talks politics and there’s a clear sense of right and wrong, why some win and some lose. But the idea that sports could and should always be apolitical is a privileged perception, and one that is out of step with history.

Sports have always been political. At an international level, sport acts as a stand-in for diplomacy, encompassing complex government policy, trade agreements and international tourism. While efforts to ensure Olympic athletes remain apolitical mean activist statements like John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salutes are rare, the Olympics is a focal point for social, political and economic criticism, with past and current calls to boycott the Games over host countries’ policies and human rights records. Closer to home, the AFL’s expansion into China was established in 2007 as a way to increase the profile of AFL with the Chinese community in Australia, encourage a sense of community and encourage diplomatic links abroad. In 2016, the AFL Greater China Cup was established, and the league was further expanded with the establishment of AFL Europe, AFL Asia and several smaller teams around the Asia-Pacific region.

The idea that sports could and should always be apolitical is a privileged perception, and one that is out of step with history.

When political issues in sport do arise, causes overwhelmingly focus on social justice for minority or oppressed communities. The Australian rugby team boycotted apartheid-era South Africa during the 1971 season, which contributed to increasing political pressure. Anthony Abrahams, who played thirteen games for the Wallabies, said, ‘with regards to those that make a stand that are involved in sport…their obligations and issues as human beings don’t stop at the turnstile of a sporting ground.’

There is usually little backlash or discussions over the ‘place of politics’ in sport when causes align with the status quo—but when athletes seek to challenge it, the response can be very different.


‘Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman’, 22-year-old tennis player Naomi Osaka said, forfeiting her semifinal match of the Western & Southern Open after Jacob Blake was shot nine times by police officers in Wisconsin. A few weeks later, Osaka graced the US Open wearing masks printed with the names of victims of police brutality. The masks, which linked into the ‘Say Their Names’ movement, intended to start a conversation and be a present reminder that many of the police officers involved in the crimes had not been charged or arrested.

Immediately, Instagram and Twitter blew up and the regular criticisms followed; users called out Osaka’s young age and assumed naivety, drew attention to the arrests or convictions of the people featured on her masks, asserted that she was ‘ruining’ tennis, and that her stand was merely for publicity purposes.

The ‘publicity’ angle is a common argument, and one that followed Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee in 2016. Critics of Kaepernick’s claimed his actions were selfish and self-serving, and that his protests would ‘ruin’ the NFL. In mid-2020, though, research by Nielsen revealed US sports fans overwhelmingly support Black Lives Matter and believe that athletes have an important responsibility to use their platform to raise awareness about the movement and emulate antiracist behaviour.

There is usually little backlash when causes align with the status quo—but when athletes seek to challenge it, the response can be very different.

Notably, there is a lack of criticism for Osaka’s white colleagues when campaigning for social justice. Andy Murray encouraged his colleagues to take a knee during the Schroders Battle of the Brits in June 2020 following the death of George Floyd. While his action gathered support online, it raises the question: why can some athletes express their activism with significantly less blowback than others?


In an article in The Guardian earlier this year, Nick Kyrgios revealed his experiences overcoming his depression, stating that at the peak of his tennis career, he was in a ‘lonely, dark place’ and felt that he was ‘spiralling out of control’. The article was an important statement about men’s mental health and the double-edged sword of success, but it didn’t win Kyrgios fans or favour.

While public favour for Kyrgios shifted slightly during the 2021 Australian Open, especially following a five-set thriller against Austria’s Dominic Thiem, Kyrgios has been open about the fact that tennis feels like a ‘white gentleman’s sport’ and had felt racial vilification in the past, including from swimming champion Dawn Fraser who in 2015 suggested he should ‘go back to where [his] parents came from’.

At the close of 2020, The Canberra Times labelled Kyrgios as their sport’s ‘loser’ of the year, despite playing no matches in 2020 and engaging in extensive charity work. The criticism was mainly levelled at Kyrgios’ online behaviour in which the tennis player was frank about the excessive health risks the Adria Tour posed and the importance of health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Adria Tour, organised by Novak Djokovic in June 2020, led to numerous COVID-19 cases, including Djokovic himself.

Kyrgios’s career finds similarities in a young Lleyton Hewitt: both found success at Wimbledon, both struggled to find favour in the eyes of the media and the public. That’s not to say none of the criticism of Hewitt was deserved—in 2001, he accused a Black linesman of favouring his opponent, James Blake, also a Black man. He later apologised and claimed that his motivations were not racial.

There is a clear culture in Australia that favours and forgives talented white sportsmen but continues to ask talented people of colour to prove themselves over and over again.

But by 2002, after Hewitt jumped into the crowd at Wimbledon after winning the Championship, all was forgiven: The articles that followed asserted that Hewitt would be ‘remembered for the way he played, rather than the way he acted’, and that ‘Australian heroes are made of such deeds.’

When comparing Hewitt’s and Kyrgios’ careers side-by-side, there is a clear culture in Australia that favours and forgives talented white sportsmen, and that continues to ask talented people of colour to prove themselves, to redeem themselves, to mature and ‘be better’ in the eyes of the public, over and over again.


On the other side of the coin, charity work has always been an outlet for athletes to support charities, give back to communities and raise awareness about important causes. Usually, this means donating funds from winnings, ticket sales or other revenue to support a cause without campaigning. With climate change a key concern for young people globally, it’s no surprise that many young tennis players align with environmental causes and promote environmental conservation.

Austrian tennis player Dominic Thiem is heavily involved in environmental activism and conservation, notably working with the World Wildlife Foundation and 4Ocean, a small organisation that aims to remove plastic from the ocean. As fires ravaged throughout Australia during last year’s Australian Open, Thiem remarked, ‘There are way more important things in life and what this country is going through…we need to work to make sure a disaster like this never happens again.’ At the 2021 Australian Open, he wrote ‘Play 4 The Ocean’ on the glass camera case, a reference to his ongoing environmental activism. He also wore an outfit made entirely from recycled plastic and actively aims to negate the impact his career causes on the environment. Thiem’s remarks come as a number of high-profile Australian athletes joined with the Climate Council to call on government to do more on climate change.

Thiem toes the line between charity work and activism. While climate change deniers are, unfortunately, still a thing, his environmental conservation work is well-received, both on and off the court. But when we think about environmental conservation and Black Lives Matter, it’s clear that both require the reformation of a corrupt system—so why is one heavily villainised over the other?

The other element in this complex conversation is the disparate treatments of on-field and off-field charity work.

The other element in this complex conversation is the disparate treatments of on-field and off-field charity work. Serena Williams is a prolific activist and incredibly charitable with her time and money—she contributes to no less than thirteen charities and openly supports Black Lives Matter; however, the majority of this work is communicated via social media, rather than the court. Similarly, tennis greats like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer keep their comments off the court—whether it’s on Catalan independence or climate change. Following Osaka’s Australian Open semifinal defeat of Serena Williams, commentators noted that it felt like there was a ‘changing of the guard’, and the shift from off-court to on-court activism seems to support that. As more charities align themselves with activism and ‘charitable activism’, it feels like off-court (or off-field) activism just won’t cut it anymore.

Where do we start to fix a broken system, one that is so rife with racial vilification and oppression? Where do we go when the organisation that purports to support us allows the culture of discrimination to go unchecked? When Eddie McGuire faced the media over the scathing report into a history of racial discrimination in the Collingwood Football Club, commissioned last year following allegations from former player Heritier Lumumba, he called it a ‘proud day’. Collingwood committed to taking on the recommendations of the report, but Lumumba articulated that it needed to be a ‘whole club approach.’ The executive board room is, after all, worlds away from a post-match locker room, and one man’s resignation does not fix the AFL’s ugly history of racism.

The intersection of sports and politics is powerful. It can, and has, influenced and changed social opinion and led to changes in policy. When we dismiss sports as ‘not having a place’ to comment on wider socio-economic or political situations, we devalue the contribution athletes like Osaka, Kaepernick, Thiem, Lumumba and Kyrgios bring to their sports. Historical evidence confirms the impact social activism can have in shifting social opinion, so when someone says, ‘social justice and politics just don’t have a place in sport’, we have an obligation to push back. Not only does doing so reflect the reality and history of athletes speaking out on important issues, but it lessens the stigma around activism as a whole, making space for more players—and others with less influence, such as fans—to have these important conversations as well.