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Changing the game?

In late 2022, Andrew Thorburn was appointed CEO of an AFL club, Essendon. He never got to take up the role. Thorburn chaired the board of a church whose statements on sexuality and abortion were, said Essendon, “in direct contradiction to our values as a club.” Thorburn resigned from Essendon in the midst of a publicity storm, and legal action followed. It was eventually settled, with Thorburn and Essendon agreeing the club would fund an independent report into “how sporting organisations can build inclusive communities recognising freedoms including those relating to race, religion and sexuality.” The report, Changing the Game: Rethinking sport’s inclusion dilemma, was released earlier this year.

The report focuses on responding to “inclusion dilemmas,” situations where “deep moral differences between people make it hard for them to all feel included in the same community at the same time.” It emphasises that these dilemmas and the associated conflict of values are an ordinary feature of life and should therefore be expected and indeed embraced in sporting contexts, and in wider society, as “an opportunity for real connection, understanding and growth.” This is the report’s most helpful contribution.

In other ways, the report is a little underwhelming. It presents techniques for fostering more constructive and productive conversations about our differences which, while genuinely useful, doesn’t address the deeper questions about moral formation. That is, how we become the kind of people who are willing to have those conversations, to show up to the roundtables where facilitators can use these techniques on us?

And while its recommended approach may helpfully de-escalate potential conflicts and enhance understanding in many cases, it still doesn’t touch the hard cases that shape the contours of these debates. For example, it says, “Not all identities and beliefs deserve standing (for instance, homophobia, racism or anti-semitism).” But how do we know what qualifies as an instance of an unacceptable identity or belief, and who decides? The report doesn’t say. And its emphasis on promoting inclusion by avoiding zero-sum thinking doesn’t help in those cases that need zero-sum resolution. For example, should Lia Thomas, a natal male, be included in women’s swimming events? The report supplies no answers.

The report offers practical ways to address difficult issues that, if taken seriously, could increase respect and unity across our differences in many cases. But in the hardest cases, the ones that have the most influence, it looks like something of a lost opportunity.

Read "Students and Social Transition"
Alex Penk
July 11, 2024
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