'I don't need to hear about sportspeople's religion or sexuality'

Usman Khawaja of QLD plays a shot during the JLT One Day Cup match between Queensland and the Cricket Australia XI at Allan Border Field on September 29, 2017. Source: Getty

Sport, and sports people have a very high profile in our community, receiving much attention in the Press and general Media. However, in December 2015, I remember being very surprised at an article in The Australian newspaper, written by Cate McGregor, headlined “Usman Khawaja opens up about his Muslim faith and cricket”. It reported that this was the first time he had acceded to a media request to answer questions about what it meant to be a Muslim. Now, not everyone follows cricket and many would not know Usman, however, this was a player known to me yet I found it strange that the focus of the article was to discuss his religion, not his playing prowess as a sportsman.

There are a number of reasons I reacted strangely to this article. It read as an intimate interview and revealed a caring and balanced individual, though that had always been apparent when watching him play cricket. But I kept asking myself, “Why do I need to know what his religion is? Why does anyone need to know?” I have no idea what religion our Australian Captain Steve Smith or Vice Captain Dave Warner follow or practice. It’s immaterial and private to them. Why identify this person’s religious beliefs, linked to cricket, as being special or different? The fact that he was a Muslim had previously been highlighted way back in June 2010, so why make a publicity issue of it again?

The other interesting aspect of not knowing the religion of fellow cricket players is reinforced in the article when Khawaja states he believes after making his first century at the Gabba, Michael Slattery said, “That is the first century for Australia by a Muslim. Who was the first Christian?” Not knowing the answer it would seem, comments follow saying that Charles Bannerman is the most likely candidate and research shows he made his first century some 140 years ago in 1877 at the MCG. This selection is based on him being the first to score in the very first Ashes test in the days when religious observance was universal. Over the years, from my memory, religion has not been linked to the identity of people playing cricket, or any other sport for that matter, though there have been times when religious beliefs or practices have brought attention to a player being unable to perform his, or her, role in a sport, especially in recent times. 

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Where Usman was apparently encouraged as a Sportsperson to speak about his religion publicly, recently we had another cricketer, this time Australian Women’s Cricket Vice-captain Alex Blackwell, telling her story under the headline, “I feel treated like a second-class citizen” stating she hopes “soon the country she serves so faithfully on the cricket field will stop treating her as a second-class citizen”. Her reasons? She is a lesbian and she is a cricketer but is not given equal rights to marry, at least not in Australia, as she was married her partner in England in 2015. This was reported in The Weekend Australian in September this year by Cricket commentator Peter Lalor, no doubt the interest was linked to the current plebiscite being held on the matter of same-sex marriage, especially after Cricket Australia CEO threw support behind the YES vote, but then a high profile person from the Rugby Union code, Israel Folau, stated his support for the NO vote. The revelation of Blackwell’s views and situation arising from these events became the media story and a very public one.  

The telling of these two personal, public stories is not done to enter into a debate about muslims or same-sex marriage. There is plenty of that in our print media, on the airwaves and television already running associated with the plebiscite. The intent is to highlight just how personally public people’s lives have become, and one does wonder where it is leading to in the future. The more of the public exposure of these unique personal details, some voluntary, some by accident, some through invasion of privacy or deception, whatever, the debilitating strength of identity politics expands to impact upon our society and ends up dividing our community.

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An advertising video by TV2 Denmark title “All that we share” was recognised as the ad of the year 2017 for its message and content. A group of Danish citizens was gathered together in a room, and then separated into different marked out areas by a description; us; them; high earners; those just getting by; those we trust; those we try to avoid; new Danes; those who have already been here; the religious and another five or six categories of people. After being separated, they then were asked to be honest responding to certain questions and divulge their answer by moving to another area. The questions were quite personal: who was the class clown? who believes in life after death? who love to dance? who has been bullied? who has had sex this past week? who feels lonely? who is bisexual? and more questions till the question is asked, “So, maybe there is more that brings us together than we think? And then there is all of us that just love Denmark.”

This video shows clearly the many identities we all have that do divide us, at times, into different groups and shows us how complex our lives can be. The same-sex marriage debate is just one aspect of our lives but one that is very much in our faces at this time. We will have a view on it and we have the opportunity for that to be considered by just casting our vote. Unfortunately, letting this process happen naturally, and without adverse or critical public comment, would seem to be the challenge. An example this past weekend is a favourite columnist of mine, Nikki Gemmell, in her column in the Weekend Australian Magazine, talking about her children and an Italian exchange student said this: “And they are universally bewildered by the same-sex marriage debate. What creaky, blighted, vicious, divisive world are all those angry old dudes living in?”

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Well, as part of the Starts at 60 community, I definitely qualify for old and, these days, creaky probably can also be justified, however, I do draw the line at the accusation, boldly made, of being of a “vicious, divisive world” or “angry” about this matter by being an “old dude”. This is the type of language that divides, not binds, us all at this time. Is this not again an example of identity politics coming to the fore?

To close on that same subject, linked very much to racism these days. The Usman Khwaja story above has changed during this article being prepared. It would seem Usman has had a change of mind, or perhaps, a change of heart. For some reason, the clock in his head has rewound and he has discovered the need to bring the past into the public arena. I ponder just what has caused him to go down this path at this time. As an Australian, this is very disappointing to hear and read. This is not about doubting that there was racism as he has claimed, and whilst it is difficult for me to totally appreciate what that means to him, or any other person of colour, when one reflects on being on the earth for a good number of years, almost 80, exposed to many life situations, there has been discrimination experienced at times, challenges to overcome and when one thinks of Usman’s story, to me it is one of achievement and success, overcoming whatever racism prevailed in his lifetime, reaching the pinnacle in his chosen field by becoming a member of the Australian Cricket Team, an extremely limited and special “tribe” of talented sports persons.

Do you agree with Brian that private lives should remain private, and sportspeople focus on their game?