The much-publicised racial incidents in our football codes over the past month can raise our awareness about the nature of cultural leadership and brand risk. Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Sport
Ethnicity, religion and race have long been a source of tension in sport. This has been illustrated in numerous cases internationally, such as the effects of apartheid on sport in South Africa, the 61-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the ongoing calls for cricketing boycotts against Zimbabwe as part of international pressure on President Robert Mugabe's regime.
Australia has also had its own share of racially-based conflict in sport. Indigenous athletes may be admired by their supporters and the community as role models, but historically both fans and players have used racially-based torments to unsettle an opponent.
In the 1990s, AFL players started fighting back; who can forget the image of St Kilda's Nicky Winmar lifting up his guernsey to proudly reveal the colour of his skin in front of a grandstand packed full of Collingwood supporters? In 1995, after a spate of Aboriginal players being racially vilified, the AFL implemented its first racial vilification rule.
The NRL has followed by implementing dispute resolution procedures for racial abuse incidents, but as was recently reported on the Herald Sun's website, ex-Essendon and indigenous player, Michael Long, noted that the NRL is not proactive on their public stance against racism when compared to the AFL.
Following the recent incident of alleged racial comments from NSW State of Origin Assistant Coach Andrew Johns against Timana Tahu, Long highlighted the slow official response from the Rugby League. He called on the NRL to strengthen its position and show leadership on racism before multi-cultural supporter groups are turned away from the game.
Organisations (including football clubs) have a culture; a set of values that are common to its people. The culture is reflected in the way people behave and the things people say. It can be the result of careful planning by senior management or formed unintentionally and reflected in "that's how things have always been done around here".
In Australia, the culture of many organisations, including sporting clubs (and their supporters) often exists because of the way leaders act around their charges. The ABC reported that in the 1990s, a senior AFL club official was quoted in the media as saying "as long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everybody will admire them and respect them." This person represented the same club of those fans who allegedly taunted Nicky Winmar in the abovementioned incident. [A copy of the transcript can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/sportsfactor/stories/2005/1304428.htm].
While it is not suggested that in this instance one incident directly caused the other, it illustrates that the culture of any club (as can be witnessed by the actions of players and fans), is in part set by the club's leaders through their actions and words. The same applies when implementing risk management across an organisation. Risk leadership is vital. If the leaders say it is important, and continually act upon it, it will become important.
This incident also helps illustrate the potential for racially-based damage to a brand. There is much evidence in sport of brand erosion to clubs and players resulting from negative public incidents involving high profile players. Although Andrew Johns' brand may have been temporarily affected as Channel Nine suspended his role on the State of Origin Footy Show, time will tell as to whether this incident has any lasting effect for him. What is certain, however, is that his actions did nothing to motivate and inspire a winning culture amongst his players, with NSW losing the second State of Origin in a landslide.