Are sport ‘interventions’ kicking the right goals for Indigenous people

22 September 2020

Are Australia’s expansive Sport for Development (SfD) programs able to embrace the grassroots involvement and self-determination of Indigenous communities, or are they more focused on ticking boxes?

That’s a key question explored by The University of Queensland doctoral student Lee Sheppard, who is due to complete her PhD on 31 October.

Doctoral student Lee Sheppard

As a UQ Poche Scholar, Ms Sheppard has used a ‘who benefits’ prism to explore SfD providers’ use of sports, such as AFL and Rugby League, in Indigenous communities.

“Sport is claimed to have the unique capacity to draw in and influence hard-to-reach groups and individuals, including marginalised and/or traumatised youth populations. It’s seen as a panacea and cure-all of social ills,” she says.

“SfD providers and governments tend to use sport to ‘fix’ the ‘Aboriginal problem’ while overlooking its causality.

“To what extent do stakeholders consider aspects of sustainability, community engagement, development, education, autonomy, self-determination and empowerment?

“The programs inspire higher-resilient kids who are already talented and motivated, but to what extent do they serve at-risk kids who have already dropped out of school and fallen through the cracks?

“If there is not sufficient parental buy-in or a failure to work with local agencies, the SfD program will not function properly for those children with low resilience.

“If all the coordinators are outsiders there could be problems, whereas getting the local Elders on board means the kids are not going to muck up.”

Ms Sheppard says SfD programs need to be more than a ‘cultural offset’ for resource industry ‘social responsibility’ plans and government-funded workforce integration.

“Our mob have been using sport to culturally offset the effects of colonisation for decades,” she says.

“While the empirical evidence remains equivocal and community acceptance varies, sport has become a go-to entry point and vehicle for government policy, commercial and philanthropic interventions.

 “Whose interests are purportedly being served … and what ways could the interests of our mob be better served in a SfD setting?”

Ms Sheppard hopes her research will inform how future SfD programs are implemented and run – avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

“Rather than a focus on bolstering weaknesses, programs should consider individual student strengths and refine their talents,” she says.

“SfD programs would work if the providers, governments and funders ‘communicated’ with our mob in ways that promoted empowerment, decision-making and self-determination. Processes need to be from the bottom up.

“Instead of progressing their own agendas and expecting us to ‘accept’ the intervention without question, they should work with our mob in culturally-appropriate ways whereby they listen to and take on board each community’s ‘individual needs’ and ‘their’ solutions for their youngsters.”

Ms Sheppard is a proud Djirribal woman, whose country is located in Far North Queensland. She graduated from The University of Queensland in 2014 as an anthropologist (minor sociology) and undertook and completed her honours in 2015 examining ‘Cultural offsets in the mining industry’.