Disability slurs in football must be given the same punishment as racial and homophobic slurs

This piece contains ableist and racist language. It also contains discussion about football, which is uncharacteristic of me.


Heath Shaw, a Greater Western Sydney footballer, used the R word toward another player as an on-field sledge last Saturday. He apologised almost immediately, and so did commentators.

The AFL and Greater Western Sydney Giants are not issuing a fine. They are satisfied with Shaw’s apology.

The R word (and its derivatives) is violent. It hurts. It is scary. It’s used against people with disability – it’s dehumanising and insulting.

I hope Heath takes the time to talk to disabled people to learn the impact of ableist language. I hope he knows how bothering this is, that by using this word, he is implying disabled people (and non-disabled people) are lesser.

Football fans with disability are hurting over this. Down syndrome Australia issued a statement, part of which states how ableist language used by footballers impacts on the public perception of people with disability:

“…It is important to understand how damaging the use of such a term by a high-profile athlete is to community attitudes.

“The casual use of the deeply offensive R-word by high profile Australians reinforces stigma and negative attitudes and has a significant impact on how the community views people with a disability”, said CEO Down Syndrome Australia Dr Ellen Skladzien.”


Catia Malaquias, founder of disability advertising inclusion initiative Starting With Julius, believes Shaw’s apology missed the mark.

Bryce Ritchie, who is disabled, has been a football fan for as long as he can remember. He has been a member of the Western Bulldogs for over 30 years and is a part of their cheer squad. He feels very respected and valued by the club and the cheer squad, and says he knows of other people with disability involved in the cheer squad. He is “disappointed and shattered” at the language Heath Shaw used on the field.

“To say [the R word] to a member of the public with a disability and even those without is… the lowest point”, Ritchie says.

“Abusing and swearing can be hard to take but when a player has said the R word it’s unforgivable incident. Even the commentator I think was thrown by this and apologised live on air.

“These players know that there are microphones hearing in and there is no excuses. The stadiums promote the reporting of spectators using foul and terrible language where the result a fan can be ejected from the ground yet a player gets let of because he is on the field.”

However, there is not a standard for all forms of discrimination. While the AFL shows commitment to reducing vilification toward the LGBTIQA +, Aboriginal and multicultural communities, and the National Rugby League asked a player to apologise to his team for a racial slur in 2005, disability is the forgotten part of diversity. This is saddening when individual clubs and the wider AFL support community organisations and initiatives including disability charities. I wonder what the leagues designed for children with disability think of Shaw’s slur and the AFL’s lack of action?

Football players are taking a stand against racial prejudice, but at a cost toward diversity and inclusion. A 2016 report uncovered that teams are losing Aboriginal and international players because of casual racism.

The police also investigate football fans’ racial slurs towards players. A weekend incident involving a fan tells a Brisbane Lions runner to go back to the Chinese takeaway is being investigated by Victoria police.  In early April, a Port Adelaide fan was condemned by the club as well as investigated by the police for calling Aboriginal player Eddie Betts an ape.

However, like the lack of punishment for players who use terms like the R word, there’s also no such punishment for fans who make disability slurs. Annie Nolan, who is part of the Western Bulldogs family, shared my Facebook post about the disability slur on her highly subscribed Facebook page. Many football fans commented that they believe disability slurs at the football is getting worse, with one fan realising she no longer wants to be a part of this crowd culture.

“I went to the Kangaroos V Bulldogs game on Good Friday at Etihad and was seated in a majority of Kangaroos supporters (hubby is a Roo supporter)”, Lisa Freestone said.

“I sat through 3 rounds of another Kangaroo supporter swear, yell at other spectators and was being very rude. I texted the number with his seat/row/section and no staff came. The 4th quarter he called one of the footballers a “spastic” and that’s when decided that AFL games are not for me any longer. I was disgusted, he thought it was hilarious, I left the stadium then and there.”

On Monday’s Nova 100 breakfast show, host and former player Jonathan Brown spoke of how disability slurs falls outside the “law of the game”, implying the issue of microphones on the field are a bigger issue than the R word, while his co-hosts indicated there needs to be change in the discrimination laws.

Jonathan Brown:

“He’s come out and apologised. It’s probably inappropriate. But there is the law of the jungle there’s the law of the game, and the law of the jungle is that you’ll try and put your opponent off however you can.”

Sam Pang:

“But back in the day though, that meant racism was fine, and homophobia was fine, Jonathan Brown.”

Jonathan Brown:

“No I was just about to say, race, religion, colour and sexual orientation – you cannot go there. But outside of that, boys can do whatever they want.”

Chrissie Swan:

“Well that’s ridiculous things need to be updated.

Jonathan Brown:

“No, no no…I’ll tell you what. Heath Shaw is living by the laws of the land currently. And he went out there and said something he would regret. But he was picked up by microphones on the field. These blokes are not walking down the street. They are trying to win a game of football. They do not realise they are going to get picked up too close. I can understand why people cross the line. Now he didn’t cross the line as far as the laws of the game go, ok. But it’s a good warning for the players.”

Brown seems to think there’s a double standard – and it’s not with the use of the R word – rather players need to be given empathy because there’s a microphone.  And while “these blokes are not walking down the street”, disability slurs on the field have more of an impact as the language is being broadcast into people’s living rooms. (Listen to the full podcast here.)

Bryce Ritchie wants to see the AFL reprimand Shaw and other players who use disability slurs.

“[The] AFL needs to brief players and officials that microphones pick up all that is said on the field. If a player used this language the player must take up voluntary work with people with a disability.”

Ritchie, pictured below, wants to see players fined heavily – even suspended – to pay for the impacts of their language and for bringing the AFL into disrepute.

If this language is used on the field, it’s probably still used in the locker room. And because footballers are seen as superheroes, not disabled, they most likely believe this language is ok – believing the R word doesn’t apply to them. (You only need to look at the comments about “sheltered workshops” from the Australian Olympic Committee’s John Coates to realise how throwaway such language is in sport.) Plus, the AFL has excellent women, Aboriginal, multicultural and women representatives taking about diversity. They don’t have disabled players.

Disability slurs used by high profile sportspeople is a bad example for fans. The AFL is so entrenched in the Australian culture that the use of the R word on the field tells fans it’s ok to use it in everyday life.

Footballers should be able to have banter, and sledge if it means putting off their opponent. But if their banter hurts a marginalised group of people, they need to rethink and modify their behaviour. They are more than just sportspeople – they set the tone of how we treat each other off the field.

Rules needs to change to acknowledge disability slurs are as damaging as sexism, racism and homophobia. A fine and mandatory disability training should be a standard for all discriminatory slurs. If not, the AFL is saying disability doesn’t matter.

About the writer: Carly Findlay is a writer, speaker, podcaster and appearance activist. She
is a proud disabled woman. While she has lived in Melbourne for 14 years,
she is yet to choose a football team.


  1. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for this Carly, really interesting. I grew up in a time where racism, sexism and ableism were commonplace in the schoolyard – we have been slowly but surely making progress to eradicate these types of insults (and hopefully the thinking that underlies them). But just as there are still many people who don’t realise there’s anything wrong with describing something pejoratively as ‘gay’ it’s the same with a lot of ableist language. And of course we are most likely to see/hear it in places where tempers are most frayed. As you say, however, the time for zero tolerance is now.

    However, one thing I’d like to take issue with: “they don’t have disabled players”. While there are no players (that I am aware of) with physical or intellectual disability, we have seen a number of players in recent times talking about the affects of psychiatric disorders on their lives and careers. For me, part of a zero tolerance approach to ableist slurs is ensuring that AFL players understand disability is not a them and us – it is all us.

  2. Tom Riordan says

    A really well-written piece, Carly.

    It is difficult to stamp out the actions of those who feel it is appropriate to use ableist language, but hopefully incidents like the Shaw one can help to educate the uneducated. Until then, I’m sure you agree that it’s important to show no tolerance towards language that may cause offence towards a minority.

  3. Well argued piece Cath. Like Dave I come from a neanderthal era when these things and worse were said unthinkingly. As I matured I became aware that they made no sense and were not compatible with my views on a decent world. I never used racist words (MLK was an early hero) – but p…ta; sp….c and worst of all g.rl or big sh..la – rolled off my tongue regularly on the terraces and the playing field.
    Awareness of their hurt and unfairness and absurdity made me gradually change.
    So I think public censure and ridicule is the best means of generating positive change. Too much PC regulation creates a defensive laager backlash that reinforces discrimination.

  4. Barb Jamieson says

    i am going to make a pretty broad statement here . As a long , long time lover and supporter of the game , i am at a point where I am really quite disenchanted by the antics of some of our so called elite players. I might add, that this feeling is spilling over into other arenas of sport also . i have had fairly close contact via their families with a couple of AFL players, who have had parents and family who if needed, remind them that they are lucky to be playing a game that they love at such a high level, and being paid for it , but get a big head about it , and you’ll quickly be reminded by one of us that you are just an ordinary man , who just happens to kick a football well . Sadly , because Australians are generally lovers of sport , and have a habit of putting their favourite player on a pedestal, and put poor behaviour down to being a bit a of a larrikin , rather than accept that the behaviour is hurtful, unacceptable and inappropriate

  5. Barb Jamieson says

    sorry , Im continuing
    I have come to the conclusion that the great Australian sport is to belittle, ridicule and and denigrate anybody who doesn’t fit into your own little box, and unless something , like disability , ethnicity , and sexuality are the same as yours, there is little respect for people who are outside their tiny little world .

  6. Rick Kane says

    What Carly said. The golden rule. Respect is as respect does. Cheers

Leave a Comment