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Is the Essendon saga evidence of faith under siege?

  • 10 October 2022
It is highly doubtful that the Essendon Football Club appreciated the reaction that would occur when it presented its new CEO, Andrew Thorburn, with the option of giving up his role as a lay leader in the City on a Hill Anglican Church, or resigning from his role with the Club. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, immediately issued a statement: ‘It is outrageous that a person of good character has felt that he must choose between a public leadership role and being an active member of a Christian community’, intimating that he would not renew his membership of the club.

The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Phil Freier also defended Thorburn and the City on a Hill church, even though he held to a more liberal form of Anglicanism. It was not just Christian leaders that spoke up — Adel Salman, the president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, described the episode as the ‘most stark example’ of organisations sacrificing religious freedom at the altar of corporate image.

My sense is that such statements reflected widespread concerns amongst people of faith, even if many were also uneasy about how the issue was caught up in the culture wars, and thus were uncomfortable with some of the voices who came to Thorburn’s defence.

Controversies that had emerged just prior to this were reminders about the significance of sport and its role in culture and societal values. The Hawthorn AFL club was caught up in a damaging and ongoing scandal around the treatment of indigenous players in recent years. And then in Soccer, Football Australia banned for life a supporter of the Sydney United 58 club who was filmed making a Nazi salute during the Australia Cup final. Malcom Knox observed that it was a reminder ‘that free speech is not a limitless right purchased unconditionally with the entry ticket to a football match. And that anyone who bans a fascist is not a fascist too.’ Where did the Essendon saga fit?

Our Football codes have experienced significant challenges in this space around values, especially around LGBTI issues. In 2018 the case of Rugby’s Israel Folau dominated the headlines over his claim to the right to express his religious views and his employment with Ruby Australia. In Rugby League this year, Manly’s decision to adopt a pride jersey without consulting the players led to a damaging split with many of the players of Pacific Islander