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Posted by in Business, Cross-cultural Management

Three Reasons for Australian Sport to Embrace Diversity

Three Reasons for Australian Sport to Embrace Diversity

This week I’m writing about why sporting bodies, particularly Australian sporting bodies need to embrace diversity. While it’s not strictly an ‘international business’ topic (my usual focus), the post touches on matters international and multicultural in a broader sense and highlights their relevance to the business of sport. 

Australia prides itself on being a multicultural country and the numbers show that we are –  a whopping one quarter of the total population is born overseas, far ahead of other OECD countries which average just 11%. But the statistical diversity of our population isn’t always reflected by public attitudes, and nowhere is this truer than on the sporting field. Whether we like it or not, sport continues to play a vital role in debates around our national identity.

Thankfully, Australian sport is no longer characterised by its ‘whiteness’ and a number of sports have done quite well at making sure that they represent Australia’s many faces. The AFL, which strives to project a multicultural image, can boast that 25% of its players are from diverse backgrounds and maintains alist illustrating this diversity on its website.  A few years ago, cricket established its Mosaic Programs to get more people from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds involved in the sport and the ascent of players like Moises Henriques, Fawad Ahmad and Usman Khawaja is a clear sign that the game is diversifying. Rugby League has its One Community Program and Indigenous All Stars.

But cultural and racial prejudice in Australian sport still exists. For a high profile example, you need look no further than the controversy surrounding AFL star, Adam Goodes last year. In case you missed it, Australia made international headlines  in 2015 when Goodes, described as “Australia’s most divisive sports figure” copped a public hiding after he celebrated a goal with an Aboriginal “war dance” during the Australian Football League’s indigenous round.

Football racism row splits opinion in Australia


Just across the Tasman Sea, New Zealanders proudly to celebrate the diversity of their culture and shared national identity by performing the haka at the start of rugby games. Apparently, many in Australia’s mainstream aren’t so comfortable with these overt displays of multiculturalism. Writer Jeremy Stanford commented (in relation to the Goodes incident) that

White society is still so removed from our Indigenous brothers and sisters that when Lewis Jetta and Adam Goodes perform a war dance in a game of football we can only see division. We can’t embrace it like the Kiwis embrace the haka before a game of rugby. It becomes a threat because it’s not a version of what white players have traditionally done and therefore it’s unacceptable. It’s a statement.

Whether you agree with Stanford or not, it’s clear that sporting associations and clubs have the opportunity to do more in this space, including encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to join and share their unique cultural heritage with other members. Here are three reasons that they should.

Sport brings people together and sets an example

More than just a game, sport has the power to connect people instantly on a personal level. It’s can be a powerful means to affect change in communities by bringing people together, if we encourage it. That seems like a win for social cohesion to me.

Australians tend to revere their sportsmen and sport in this country often functions as a forum for debate. In that sense, sport makes a great vehicle for creating positive conversations and establishing norms of behaviour that can be emulated by the rest of society, particularly by young people and future leaders.

Sport breaks down barriers

Sport also offers opportunities to break down barriers and encourage participation in a way that other areas of society may struggle to match. To quote Waleed Aly:

Sport is largely a meritocracy. Where sport is the vehicle for culture anyone can jump on board. You do not need a genetic link to the nation’s past. Cultural life is not so much about a shared history as it is a shared present.

For a powerful, international example of the power of sport to unify a nation,  take a look at how Nelson Mandela used rugby to unite a South Africa torn by apartheid. A year after the first multiracial democratic election in 1994, the country hosted the Rugby World Cup, traditionally an Afrikaner sport that saw black people cheering for the opposition. Although rugby in South Africa was seen as a symbol of the white man’s dominance over the black majority, Mandela resisted pressure to scrap the springbok, the team’s despised emblem, and rallied the country around the players, propelling them to win the Rugby World Cup and unifying the nation.  For more on how rugby helped to dismantle apartheid in South Africa, check out Invictus, starring Morgan Freedman and Matt Damon.

It’s good for the bottom line

If you’re not convinced by the high-principled arguments about the benefits of diversity in sport, there’s always the economic one, which is pretty straightforward.

In Australia, sport accounts for about 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and was worth some $12.8 billion in 2013. Sporting events also generate economic activity in the community and consumer demand for sports-related goods and services. There is also a link between participation in sport (playing and spectating) and spending. In other words, the more involved a wide variety of people become in sports of all kinds, the the more economic benefit we’ll see for sports bodies, private enterprise and the economy as a whole. On that basis, it makes sense to have people from all kinds of cultural and ethnic backgrounds participating in and spending money on sport.

Dearin & Associates is a business consultancy specialising in cross-cultural management and training for people who travel abroad or deal with diverse communities at home. We know that cultural differences are a well-documented source of conflict for people working with culturally diverse clients and teams. Failure to understand these differences and find ways to bridge the cultural divide can lead to conflict within your team, difficult relationships with clients, delayed decision-making and reduced productivity. All of which is bad for the bottom line.

To find out how we can help your team, contact us at


  1. Hi Trudie,

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that women and women’s sport are vital to diversity in sport as they are in all areas of life, but the there are also differences that don’t specifically relate to whether one is male or female.

    The aim of the post was to highlight some of the recent multicultural problems that exist in some of the most popular sports in Australia and I didn’t specifically address the issue of women’s inclusion in sport in the blog post because I wanted to focus on ethnicity and culture in this particular piece.

    Adding material about women would have have made it too long (it was already a pretty lengthy piece), but this definitely doesn’t mean that I think female participation in sport is unimportant.

  2. Not one mention of women or women’s sport! Incredibly limited view of sport and society. How can you discuss diversity and not even include women? You just supported the monopoly held by AFL, cricket and rugby as male dominated sports which has limited diversity and inclusion for so long. Watch the Olympics there are more than 3 sports in the world and women play all of them!

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