Inspiring panel shines a light on diversity in sport

As part of UNSW’s Diversity Fest, a panel of elite Australian athletes took to the stage to discuss diversity and inclusion in the sporting landscape.

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The panel of elite athletes tackled a wide range of issues around diversity and inclusion in sport. Photo: Chrissie Hall

Dual Paralympian Dylan Alcott pulled no punches in breaking down stereotypes around disabled people in society at the Game Changers panel – an event that headlined UNSW’s Diversity Fest celebrations.

“You don’t need to feel sorry for me, my life is better than yours,” he said, referring to many people he meets who express pity that he is paraplegic and navigates the world via wheelchair. But he is of course right in his assertion – Alcott has travelled the world as a nine-time grand slam winner in tennis, as well as previously winning a Paralympic gold medal for basketball. In 2019 he took home a Logie for Most Popular New Talent for his role on The Set alongside Triple J’s Linda Marigliano. There is nothing remotely pitiable about his life.

Dylan Alcott

Dylan Alcott is challenging assumptions and beliefs around diversity in Australia. Photo: Chrissie Hall

Alcott addressed the erasure of disabled people from many diversity initiatives across the country. He described talking to business leaders who were keen to show off their diversity programs around race, gender and sexuality but faltered when questioned about what they were doing to make their companies more inclusive and accessible for disabled people.

It was a night to ask the hard questions and examine the truths underlying the idea that Australia has a welcoming and laidback culture.

Former Australian netballer Sharni Layton opened up on her struggles with mental health, which led to her stepping away from the sport entirely for seven months before retiring at age 30 when she tried and failed to understand her identity outside of her sporting persona.

Now an AFLW footballer with Collingwood, Layton revealed that she has to limit her speaking engagements that discuss mental health because the experience of talking about it so openly is draining and can drag her back to those dark places she went to when she needed to walk away from netball.

Sharni Layton

Sharni Layton worked to improve mental health provisions for Australia’s elite netballers. Photo: Chrissie Hall

For Layton, being an athlete in a sport that is still in its growth stages has been a blessing. She has all the benefits of exercise, competition and camaraderie that come along with elite team sport, without the pressures that were involved in being at the top of a professional sport.

National Rugby League (NRL) Diversity and Inclusion Manager Casey Conway faced his own struggles growing up and realising who he was. Conway attended boarding school in regional Queensland and was identified as a rugby league talent at a young age. However, he found it difficult to reconcile his sporting achievements with his sexuality, as he didn’t see any gay players in the NRL that he could look up to and aspire to be.

As a result, Conway revealed, he resorted to bullying boys at his school who had feminine characteristics as a way of deflecting from his own self-consciousness about not fitting the typical model of a rugby league player.

Casey Conway

Casey Conway struggled with his identity as a gay, Aboriginal man in rugby league. Photo: Chrissie Hall

When he did start understanding and accepting his own sexuality, Conway then faced casual racism in the gay community, which he struggled with as an Aboriginal person.

Olympic gold medallist Ellia Green never expected to represent her country in rugby sevens. Growing up, Green idolised American sprinter Carmelita Jeter and aspired to be just like her.

Born in Fiji, Green was adopted by her Polish mother and English father and moved to Australia at age three and having posters of Jeter on her walls showed her that black women could dominate on the world stage.

She was on track to achieve her goals, representing Australia in the 100m, 200m and long jump at the World Junior Championships in 2012, before a chance encounter saw her switch to rugby.

One of her Fijian cousins was attending an open talent scouting session in Melbourne and called Green for a lift as her car battery had died. Running late and not wanting to go in on her own, Green’s cousin begged her to come inside. Once there, she was encouraged to join in and pretty soon she found herself on the list of players they were interested in.

Ellia Green

Ellia Green is passionate about the promotion of women in sport. Photo: Chrissie Hall

Green spoke passionately about the need for diverse role models in sport – from more representation of sportswomen in the media to those women also being diverse in their body shape, culture and sexuality.

The four panellists along with host Paul Kennedy, of ABC News Breakfast, provided fascinating insights into diversity issues in sport and dealt with every topic sensitively and empathetically.

While sport in Australia isn’t often known for its inclusivity and diversity of culture, these leaders in their fields demonstrate that the game is changing.

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