Racism in Sporting Crowds and the Law

June 21, 2021

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The 2021 Australia v India Test in Sydney was marred by the eviction of several spectators from the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was alleged that the spectators had racially abused Indian players on the field.

The ugly incident is a recent example of many incidents of racist behaviour from sports spectators towards athletes, officials and other patrons. What are the possible ramifications for perpetrators of this antisocial behaviour?

Potential Legal Ramifications

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) makes it unlawful for a person to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate others on the basis of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origin.

Whilst this provision makes such behaviour unlawful, it does not make it illegal or criminal. The purpose of section 18C is to be able to hold perpetrators of this behaviour accountable for their actions.

An aggrieved person is able to make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission will investigate the matter and then attempt to resolve it by engaging the relevant parties in conciliation. If the matter is not resolved by conciliation, the aggrieved person can bring the matter into the Federal Court system.

The matter is usually resolved with perpetrator agreeing to make an apology, pay damages to the aggrieved, or making an undertaking not to engage in the behaviour again.

While there have not yet been any cases of these provisions being used in a sporting crowd context, these laws remain relevant to enforcement against racial vilification in sport.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that an athlete, sports official or fellow patron could make a successful section 18C complaint against a person engaging in racial vilification.

In 2011, Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened section 18C after he questioned the motives of “fair-skinned people” who identified as Aboriginal in his News Ltd columns. He was successfully sued by Pat Eatock, a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, for conveying the message that fair-skinned Aboriginal people were identified as such for political or social benefit. News Ltd were eventually required to correct the offending statements in their relevant newspapers and were restrained from re-publishing the columns in the future.

Sporting Organisations’ Regulations

In addition to the possible legal ramifications of being involved in racial vilification in a sporting crowd, many sporting organisations and clubs now have regulations which aim to stop this behaviour.

The AFL has regulations in its Conditions of Entry which gives them the power to eject spectators who engage in racial vilification. They can also suspend the perpetrator’s AFL membership as a consequence of such behaviour.

Similarly, the Australian Open prohibits any “conduct…which offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies” others. A breach of this rule could see the perpetrator evicted from Melbourne Park and permanently banned from future events.

These are just two examples of sporting organisations fighting back against racist behaviour in their respective sporting crowds.

However, there are limitations with these conditions. The enforcement of these regulations is dependent upon the aggrieved party being able to adequately identify the perpetrator. The aggrieved party must then make a complaint against a perpetrator to the sporting venue or organisation’s officials. It is then up to the officials to appropriately manage the complaint and punish the perpetrator by exercising their limited powers. These criteria all need to be met if an aggrieved person is to be successful in obtaining compensation for damage caused by racist behaviour.


In order for sport to be enjoyable, everyone must feel safe and respected. Spectators need to be aware of what they say and do at sporting events to avoid any repercussions.

Anyone who has been racially vilified at sporting events should also be aware of the legal and non-legal avenues for complaint they could choose to pursue to remedy their grievances.

If you need assistance, please contact Paul Horvath  at SportsLawyer on (03) 9642 0435 or reach out to us at info@sportslawyer.com.au.  Nothing in this article should be relied on as legal advice.   The contents of this article should be regarded as information only, and for specific legal matters, independent advice should always be sought.