What Positives can come from a Racist Remark at the Football? More than you Think if you Look at it Differently

This weekend our papers were filled with the story about a 13 yo girl yelling a racist slur at one of our footy champions playing in the stadium in front of her and many thousands of fans. AFL Footballer responding to  racial abuseThe champion took offense, pointed out the transgressor to security and she was evicted from the ground in front of her shocked and embarrassed parent. There are many ways to view this episode and many points of view depending on what particular attitude you happen to have on the subject of racial slurs. I don’t intend to add my commentary to the rights and wrongs of what was said and done but what I would like to do is share an important lesson we learn from this incident about perceptions and the ‘framing’ we place around situations at work.

To set the scene here are some known facts about the incident. The footballer was genuinely hurt by the comment and although what was said wasn’t filled with vicious or vulgar obscenities, the words used were perceived to be derogatory based on his race and heritage and therefore unacceptable. The footballer felt hurt because it triggered a reminder in him of all of the racial vilification and bullying he had received as a boy at school and growing up in his teenage years both on and off the football park. Football in actionThe fact that he is a champion footballer who has won the game’s highest individual and team honours over the years is irrelevant because when he gave a media conference after the game he was speaking for all players on the field and people in society who still face the taunts and barbs of those ignorant few who take delight in attacking one’s race, religion, gender, sexual preference or some other perceived ‘difference’ which have no bearing on a person’s character or ability.

I applaud his decision to draw a line in the sand and speak up. And in his own words, we discover that what upset him most was the fact that the person shouting out the racist slur was only 13 years old, and therefore potentially a product of her own environment and not aware of the damage she might be causing. He was dignified in the aftermath by saying that he hoped she would not be vilified for her own ignorant comments but educated on the damage that a thoughtless or vindictive comment can cause for those against who it’s aimed. In doing that, he raised the bar further in the debate on racial vilification. More on that later.

From the young girl’s point of view, we discover that she intended no genuine disrespect and that what she said was a ‘spur of the moment’ thing that blew up out of her frustration that her footy team was getting soundly beaten and the object of her denigration was one of the chief architects in her team’s demise. Upon further investigation we discover that she was totally unaware that what she was saying had racial overtones to it. She was embarrassed and extremely apologetic and subsequently rang the footballer to apologize in person, which he graciously accepted.

Taking the matter further, immediately after the game the governing body (the Australian Football League) and the CEO of the opposing team both spoke out strongly about this behaviour being totally unacceptable either by players or fans under any context, but both stopped short of wanting to reprimand or punish the young transgressor any further, in agreement with the wishes of the vilified footballer.

So, all in all, what could have turned from an unacceptable incident into an ugly witch-hunt by the respective sport authority has ended well in my opinion. There is a strong message that racial slurs do not have a place in our modern society and it gave the opportunity for the sport to educate and inform young people on how they handle the issue of racial vilification… which is to neither sweep it under the carpet, but nor to turn the molehill into a mountain of abuse for the young, uneducated transgressor.

It is indeed a pity that in its eagerness to chase this story, the media has placed the young girl and her mother fairly and squarely in the public eye – something that a young, naive and impressionable girl of 13 should not be subjected to.

So what do we learn about this unfortunate episode that we can apply to the workplace?

I believe the answer is in the concept of ‘framing.’  It is timely that I talk about it today, because just last week my young son Sam came home with a project from school where he had to take three photographs of everyday objects from different vantage points (above, eye level and below, for instance), and then describe in his project how he had ‘framed up’ the photos he took and the different perspectives it gave to the objects being photographed depending on how he framed them.

FramingFraming is a useful concept in our use of language, because it has such a huge impact on perceptions and understanding and motivation of ourselves and others. At the most impactful level, it can help to prevent serious conflict through a process of ‘chunking up’ to another logical level of thinking.

Here’s what I mean by that. If you are talking to me about car tyres, I can remain talking with you on that level or I can shift our focus to the next logical level in that subject matter which is cars. We can remain stuck at that level of conversation, or you might lift our thinking up another cog into talking about road transportation (cars, motorbikes, buses and trucks). We can even go further by talking at a level of all transportation on land, sea and air. Another example would be lifting the logical levels of discussion topic from banana to fruit to food to sustenance (food and water).

What we effectively do here is lift our thinking and talking to another level and at the next level there is a greater opportunity to gain agreement due to the bigger picture being considered. This is excellent for when people are in conflict over a particular issue, because by lifting their level of focus to the next logical level we are helping them to get above the problem and look down on the competing issues as differing but complementary parts of a much bigger whole or game. It is also very useful to apply this process of thinking and communicating when people at work are bogged down in the detail and can’t seem to get out of the mire of their confusion. Conversely when people are too vague and ‘fluffy’ about a subject we can go in the opposite direction and ‘chunk down’ to the component parts of the issue.

So let’s go back to the issue of the racial vilification example above and see the various ‘frames’ that could have been applied to the same content.

Level 1: The racial slur is given and the people who witness the event all laugh it off as being humorous at the expense of a champion footballer. If he takes personal offense it may help to ‘put him off his game’ so in the eyes of the opposing team’s fans, this is acceptable behaviour and this is how it would be framed as a result…. (To the footballer), “Get over it pal and don’t be so sensitive. It’s a tough world out there and there are bigger things to worry about, especially given your status and your own comfortable circumstances.” (As we know, this frame was prevalent on the football field a generation ago. Times have since changed for the better.)

Level 2: The racial slur is given and the reaction that it triggers in the champion footballer is one of hurt and indignation. The transgressor is roundly criticised in turn by the footballer, the authorities and the media as being ignorant and unfeeling and he or she is publicly humiliated and officially reprimanded or punished in some way. The transgressor has now joined the ranks of the victimised along with the champion footballer, and this is how the event might be framed… “The footballer is rightly hurt for this racial slur and the ‘lowlife’ that did it deserves all of our contempt and disgust.”  (Unfortunately the media continues to propagate that frame by continuing to shine their spotlight on the girl in question, rather than the issue. It is a pity that they have not followed the wise advice of the football code authority and the vilified footballer.)

Level 3: The racial slur is given and the reaction that is triggered is what we witnessed this weekend. The champion footballer is genuinely hurt; the transgressor is genuinely surprised and embarrassed at the effect her comments caused; and it is an opportunity for the football code to send a clear message to players and fans alike that this is unacceptable behaviour. Furthermore it now presents the opportunity to educate this young person and her peers about the emotional harm that can be caused by such thoughtless and inappropriate comments, and this is how it might be framed as a result… “What the transgressor said was unacceptable under any circumstances, and we have an opportunity here to publicly acknowledge the hurt that it caused and then to rise above the incident and teach all people of her age and older about showing respect for their fellow human beings and their abilities regardless of their perceived differences to us.”

There we have it. Three different frames of the same incident, each of which lead to a different meaning depending on the frame or the ‘reframe’ we give the incident. Hopefully some day in the not too distant future, the only frame that will be needed around such incidents will be ‘no frame’ because racial, religious, gender and sexual preference vilification will have been stamped out.

Where in your workplace have you been presented with the opportunity to ‘reframe’ an event or situation and so change the meaning that is drawn for all of those involved?

If you have any examples I’d love to hear about them from you. Just email me c/- brian@precisionprofiling.com.au and share your example with me.

Until next time, let’s seek to understand more and judge less.  – Brian

Precision ProfilingWhat Makes You Tick? Through ‘Motivational Fingerprinting’ we help you and your staff to uncover why you do what you do and most importantly, which patterns can lead to your success, and which ones might be holding you back.

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the principal director of Precision Profiling®.

He is a renowned practitioner, writer and speaker on building total customer cultures; values driven leadership and world best practice strategy and implementation.

He has been a guest lecturer on world best practice for the executive management programme at Monash University’s business college (Mt Eliza campus); an adviser to and key note speaker for the Singapore Productivity Association and a consultant to many major Australian and overseas corporations and government departments.

Read more about Brian Clark Here


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