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Social justice in the spotlight: Do the benefits of sport outweigh the negatives?

Does sporting competition bring out the best or the worst in society? Some commentary on the victory of the South Sydney in the National Rugby League competition has emphasised the social justice role of a club  such as the Rabbitohs. The link between the indigenous community and Redfern has been offered as one illustration of such a role.

The general case has also just been made in the 2014-15 Social Justice Statement, "A Crown for Australia: Striving for the best in our sporting nation", issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for Social Justice Sunday. This series dates back to the 1940s and usually addresses topics with a more obvious justice theme, such as unemployment, poverty, or overseas aid. Who would have thought that sport would join such a list?

Yet the statement provides the ingredients for a compelling case, although it is also ultimately ambivalent about the balance between good and bad produced by sport. It hopes that the good outweighs the bad but fears for the direction sport is taking.

The Social Justice Statement begins with the major claim that "At its best, sport offers a safe and nurturing space where rich and poor, men and women, people of all colours and creeds can meet with a common goal: a place where human dignity is more important than winning the game."

A Crown for Australia goes on to claim that the majesty of sport extends to the good of humans everywhere in that it "teaches us life-long lessons, unites communities and can overcome differences and be a force for social justice and reconciliation."

The elements of personal development include learning persistence, facing the pain of defeat with good grace and always working with others in a team.

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Sport, through both membership and barracking, also helps build communities.  The statement sees sporting interactions as a social glue holding communities together in hard times. The sporting club can be a place of shelter from economic downturns and unemployment.

It can also contribute to wellbeing and social inclusion. Wellbeing can extend to improving mental health and social inclusion includes the participation in sport of women and those at the margin, including the indigenous community and those with disabilities.

A Crown for Australia includes powerful social justice case studies of the Tigers Eleven and the Matthew Talbot Cricket Club. The former was a soccer club formed in the early 2000s for young unaccompanied refugees from Afghanistan. The latter was a sporting club for homeless men. The same is true for the achievements of disabled athletes and indigenous women. The cover photograph is of Cathy Freeman, who was also called upon by Rabbitoh's coach, Michael Maguire.

Against these positive contributions that sport can make to society must be measured the undoubted negatives. In particular, the positive balance is hardest to achieve at the top levels of professional sport.

It is at the elite levels of sport that one of the negatives, the win-at-all-costs mentality, is strongest. In the words of the statement, elite sports is played in a hyper-competitive environment. To succeed in that environment gaining the winning edge can be all-consuming, so that "clubs aggressively pursue all sorts of human expertise: corporate heavyweights, nutritionists, scientists, psychologists, life coaches and motivators". It leads to problems such as the doping of players.

It is at the elite level, too, that money dominates. Players become the property of corporations. Gambling becomes widespread and the alcohol and tobacco industries fight for entry into the lucrative advertising market. International organisations,  such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup, are dogged by corruption and sporting celebrities are elevated to unrealistic stardom. The price of equipment and tickets become beyond the reach of the ordinary working family.

To what extent does South Sydney justify the claims of the Social Justice Statement?

The history of the club, 43 years without a premiership and even tossed out of the league 15 years ago certainly is a lesson in resilience and persistence by members, supporters and players alike. The club survived through community activism led by former president George Piggins and many others.

The prominence of Indigenous players, such as Greg Inglis, is a justice story about sport not restricted to South Sydney or rugby league. Witness the contribution of Adam Goodes and other indigenous AFL players to the movement for indigenous empowerment and individual advancement. But with its links to Redfern, South Sydney certainly elevates indigenous rights. Inglis celebrated his try on Sunday night with his trademark goanna-dance celebration, something that enables him to express his pride in his heritage.

A prominent member, and former director, Andrew Denton, sees the success of South Sydney as an illustration of the values of working-class Australia and, therefore, about more than sport. He links the street marches that enabled South Sydney to survive to the Rabbitohs as a working-class team.

More broadly, South Sydney at its best illustrates the notion of the ties between community and sport. Some other teams in the AFL and NRL do this too but it is hard to find a better or more concentrated example at the elite level.

Some would see this interpretation of the South Sydney victory as a fairy-tale in more ways than one. The Rabbitohs have certainly not been immune to the negative aspects of modern-day professional sport. The club is built not just on community activism and social justice but on big bucks and celebrity, exemplified by the ownership of Russell Crowe.

Still, in this moment of South Sydney's success, as a sporting tragic I am happy to believe that even in professional sport there is more good than bad for society at large.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au