18 Jul, 2012 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece by VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter, published on Croakey (health blog on Crikey) 24 July 2012.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

It was worrying to read the front page of Friday’s The Age (The team too afraid to play, 13 July); racial discrimination has no place on the sporting field, nor any place in society.

The plight of the Sunshine Heights Western Tigers football side and the fact it’s considering no longer playing ‘the world game’ due to constant on-field racial abuse is not one we should be reading about.

Sporting clubs should be places where people gather, places that break down the barriers of racism and discrimination. Places that encourage active participation and connect people regardless of the colour of their skin, religious beliefs, gender or ability.

Race-based discrimination is a human rights violation with well-documented harmful impacts on health and wellbeing, in particular mental health, and increasingly linked to physical health including heart disease. Being the target of racism can reduce self-esteem and social support; increase stress, drug and alcohol use and self-harm, and have a detrimental effect on cultural identity. Racism can also reduce someone’s chance of getting a decent education or job.

Diversity is a fact of life in Victoria and most Victorians value it. In fact, Federal Government statistics show us that more than 43 per cent of Australians were either born overseas themselves or have a parent born overseas.

VicHealth is continually working towards ways to reduce race-based discrimination and to increase support and acceptance of cultural diversity. Blatant forms of racism still occur, as we’ve seen on the football fields in the city’s west and even at elite levels of the ‘Australian’ game.

It is sad to read that Machiek Kot, a member of the Western Tigers side who was knocked out during a scuffle in a recent match, is considering walking away from the game altogether. This is particularly heart-breaking when sport itself can play such a positive role in our general health and well-being. 

Active participation in physical activity is known to reduce depression, stress and anxiety, and improves self-confidence, self-esteem, energy levels, sleep quality and the ability to concentrate.

Physical activity promotes health and can prevent the onset of diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity and forms of cancer.

For 25 years, VicHealth has worked with thousands of sporting organisations, ranging from the smallest of community based clubs to the largest national codes. 

We currently fund Football Federation Victoria’s (FFV) New Arrival Sport intervention project aimed at engaging new arrival communities (particularly from the Horn of Africa) in football, working with clubs across the state. The FFV is currently developing a program to engage new arrival communities in sport and sustain their participation in the long term.

In addition seven sporting codes from across Victoria are keen to join the new world and are working to make their sports more welcoming places for people from culturally diverse backgrounds through VicHealth’s State Sporting Association Participation Program.

Our own research shows us that an effective way to reduce discrimination is to harness the support and constructive action of ordinary people (bystanders) who witness discriminatory behaviours or attitudes.

The study, currently being undertaken by VicHealth, is showing us that the vast majority of Victorians believe community sports clubs should take a leading role in the community for promoting respect for people of all backgrounds. They also feel it is a role of players and supporters to stand up and ensure that other players and supporters are not racially abused.

One of the truly worrying facts to come out of Friday’s report was that many from the crowd became involved in an on-field melee between the Western Tigers and its opposition. This is simply unacceptable.

VicHealth believes all sporting environments should be safe and welcoming, regardless of whether you are a player, spectator, volunteer, coach or an official.

Football is a game that has been said to unify the world. Let us hope that it will unify our diverse Victorian population, starting today.

- Jerril