Edmund Rice Centre: Fair Play, Connecting sport and social justice​

From left, Director of Identity at St Patrick’s College Strathfield Gillian Daley, former Socceroo and activist Craig Foster AM, and the Edmund Rice Centre’s Marisa Brattoni and Carmel Clark

Former Socceroo and human rights activist Craig Foster was the headline speaker at an event focused on the intersection of sport and activism.

Athletes have long used their platforms for advocacy. From the 1936 attempt to boycott the Berlin Olympics to Mohammad Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam in 1967, to the anti-Apartheid campaign to exclude South Africa from international sport to Cathy Freeman draping herself in the Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games — sport and social justice have often been intertwined.

In November 2023, students at Catholic and independent schools in Sydney were lucky enough to hear from Australian sports star turned human rights advocate Craig Foster. The former Socceroos Captain was the keynote speaker at Fair Play: Exploring the Interaction Between Sport, Social Justice and Human Rights. The event was hosted by the Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education.

Teenagers are not easy to impress, but the audience of high schoolers was entranced by Foster. There was no fidgeting, chatting or scrolling. The students listened to his every word, then lined up to ask as many questions as time would allow.

A passionate and animated speaker, Foster encouraged the students to find their voice and fight for change. “It’s within every one of you,” he told them.

Social justice is like a muscle, said Foster. “You exercise it and it gets stronger.” You may start with one small act, he said, but before long, you’ll realise that wasn’t so hard and you’ll want to do more, go further.

St Francis students Kye Hooper (Year 12), left, and Jacob Maharaj (Year 7)

Fight for freedom

Foster shared his own journey to activism, as well as campaigns he’s led and fought for. He detailed the successful fight to free political refugee and Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from detention in Thailand. Foster was careful to make sure students understood that many victories come with a cost. Ai-Araibi is free, but he was tortured, and he’s still struggling years later.

While Foster spoke at length about refugee rights and Australia’s immigration policies, he also touched on many other social justice concerns, including climate change, homelessness, Indigenous rights, and domestic violence.

Foster challenged students to question the status quo and combat intolerance and injustice. “You have to go against the grain,” said Foster, who was NSW Australian of the Year 2023.

Foster encouraged the students to research issues of inequality and study human rights law. If you’re interested in an issue, he said, investigate “the legal principles that underpin it”. Get to know how countries are supposed to act. Understanding human rights instruments is the perfect starting point for advocacy, said Foster.

The former athlete compelled students to fight for vulnerable and persecuted groups. “We are going to stand in front and say, ‘you cannot get past because to get to them, you have to go through us’,” he said.

“You have to go against the grain”

Santa Sabina students Elizabeth Buckley, left, and Charlotte Pugh

Importance of education

When a student asked Foster how a high schooler with no power could be a force for change, the retired soccer player told the teenager that his activism still mattered. Students can influence their classmates, sign petitions, and join groups. They can also gain leadership positions within their schools and then use those positions to make a difference, he said.

Foster acknowledged that while students don’t have his platform, they do have something of value. “The education you’re being given is outstanding,” he said. He encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunities their schools provide to create change.

That’s something Year 12 student Kye Hooper, a Sports Leader at St Francis Catholic College, Edmondson Park, hopes to do. Hooper listened intently as Foster talked about using his influence to help others. “It’s really inspirational,” he said.

On the run

While Foster was a hard act to follow, he was one of many speakers at the event, which included a video presentation from former Olympian and federal politician Zali Steggall, and a talk from Zaki Haidiri, a Refugee Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International who fled Afghanistan as a teenager

“I was a child when I was told you have to run to survive,” said Haidiri. At 17, his mother handed him to people smugglers to escape the Taliban, who were targeting him. Eventually, Haidiri made it to Australia.

“I was a broken person when I arrived here,” he said. He was in detention for about 10 months. Haidiri said several of his friends had taken their own lives because of Australia’s refugee policies.

He told students that when he was released with a bridging visa, the government warned him not to speak to the media. He spoke out anyway. “You have to remember those that are suffering,” Haidiri said.

It will take time, he told students, but change is possible. Haidiri’s message was one of hope, a theme of the event that every speaker touched on. Many students were especially moved by Haidiri’s story.

Students respond

Santa Sabina College students Charlotte Pugh and Elizabeth Buckley would love to see more events like Fair Play, which sparked important conversations about social justice issues and empowered them to act. The year 12 students want to see such opportunities open to rural and remote communities.

Alexandra Mediati is grateful her St Francis students could attend the event. They heard from so many extraordinary people, said Mediati, an IEU member and the Assistant Principal of Religious Education, Identity and Mission at St Francis.

“I think it’s important for younger people to be able to hear that they have a voice, and that they should use their voice for the right things in life.’

Santa Sabina student Aviti Kamach attends a session at the Fair Play event

Lucy Meyer