Now for the latest news in sport, where Scott Morrison’s traditional January bomb-throwing over #changethedate ran into unexpected opposition: the global embrace of anti-racism activism by professional sports players.
For Morrison, January 26 was meant to be an opportunity to rally his team with a few big opening hits against out-of-touch lefties before settling down for the longer innings of the political year. Instead, he’s been on defence, in response to the cultural evolution of Australia’s most national sport — cricket.
Games in the Big Bash League this year will be played on “January 26”. Some teams will play in Indigenous-themed kits. Some teams, including the Sydney Sixers, who are playing on the day, have adopted the worldwide sporting anti-racism gesture of taking the knee at the opening of each game.
Cricket Australia’s decision was “pretty ordinary”, said Morrison. His backbench joined in, sledging cricketers who backed the stance.
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For Morrison, it’s all politics. He never seems able to resist chewing away at the gristle of Australia’s culture wars, returning again and again to the detritus of the “Australia Day” debate. It’s all about performance for his aging conservative base.
For Cricket Australia, it’s a different game. It’s about grasping where sport fits into an evolving culture where support for Indigenous rights and the desire to “do something” about racism has long run ahead of political action. In that game, the #changethedate debate is already over.
Politics lags behind culture. That’s what fuels culture wars, after all. Now the only enduring question is how long the conservative base can hold the political elite back from recognising the social shift that’s already happening.
That was the point of the weekend tweet from the Sixers’ most experienced Big Bash player, Wiradjuri man Dan Christian, to his 170,000 followers:
“@ScottMorrisonMP read the room Mr Prime Minister. @CricketAus are leading the way because your government won’t. There’ll be millions of kids watching our @BBL games on the 26th January, and they’ll see us taking a knee against racism, and promoting inclusion for all. Take note.”
Morrison attempted to play the right’s favoured “all stories matter” card with his comments about those on the First Fleet having it tough too, only to get smacked by Olympic medallist Cathy Freeman.
The PM then mixed it up with that old saw: keep politics out of sport, last seen in use to oppose sporting boycotts of apartheid-era South Africa. Tricky coming from a leader who’s built his profile with a sporty “Go Sharkies” schtick, eager to be photographed with Australia’s sporting elite. The argument was then shattered with the leaked news that the government intended to honour tennis great and right-wing culture warrior Margaret Court.
The “keep politics out of sport” crowd is about denying sports professionals a voice in cultural debates (“cancel culture” if you will). It’s driven by fear of the power players bring. After decades of the right using racism to wedge the left, professional players have now wedged the right between the past, the base they’ve been busy nurturing, and the future, where most of Australia will, sooner or later, end up.
Sporting bodies like Cricket Australia know they too risk being caught. They need gestures like their January 26 programming to make sure they stay in touch with their own increasingly diverse base and draw new, younger audiences.
Players in mass sports have long been encouraged to be role models. Now, the courage of individual players — Colin Kaepernick in the United States, Adam Goodes here in Australia — has empowered them to use that social license to oppose racism including systemic racism in sport.
In the United States, the example set by Kaepernick taking the knee in protest against Black deaths, exploded in Black Lives Matter strikes by the country’s sporting teams last year. In the UK, football players taking the knee in opposition to racism (including in the sport itself) has become part of the game’s opening ritual.
In Australia, the players’ embrace of action has been driven by an enduring anger about the treatment of Goodes and inspired by Indigenous rugby league players who refused to sing the national anthem in 2019.
It’s already forced Morrison to shift, albeit with a wholly inadequate one-word anthem change.
Now, it’s pulling the sting out of his favoured annual “Australia Day” play.