Paul Lewis: Giving Devoy a sporting chance

Susan Devoy has had a tough start in her new role. Photo / BOP Times
Susan Devoy has had a tough start in her new role. Photo / BOP Times

One of the startling responses to the appointment of Dame Susan Devoy as race relations conciliator has been the intellectual snobbery displayed towards sportspeople.

Probably the most obvious case was Metiria Turei's comments after news broke that former All Black Michael Jones had turned the job down before it was offered to Devoy. Netballer Irene van Dyk had also been part of the search process.

"Being well-known in and being excellent at sport is a skill in itself but there are other skills that are necessary for these jobs," said the Greens co-leader.

It's not quite: 'They play sport so they must be dumb' but it's not that far off. It's also rich that it comes from a politician. If there was a keenly-focused professional examination of all our elected representatives, wonder how many of them would be judged to have the "skills" to do their job?

It's also pretty rich coming from a Green. They are now the third-largest political party in the land but have never wielded any political power as successive Labour and National governments have kept them out of coalition. Some would say that demonstrates a certain lack of skills ...

Labour MP Louisa Wall has also lifted New Zealand up the international approval ratings with her gay marriage bill - in spite of the intellectual handicap of being a double New Zealand international (netball and rugby).

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that the intellect card has been played. Devoy has had a rough start and some of her mistakes have been rookie ones. She maybe needed someone to advise her, as did former Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake to new MPs: "Breathe through your nose a lot" - meaning listen, learn, then speak.

But it's been the sniffy response from some looking down intellectual snoots at sportspeople during the Devoy saga that has been most irritating. There have been sports-related people in the job before - former Counties rugby coach Hiwi Tauroa whose gentle firmness and common sense was admired and well-regarded former All Black and Rhodes scholar Chris Laidlaw. Previous conciliator Joris de Bres had a background of external relations for the Department of Conservation and industrial relations for the Public Service Association. How that qualifies him any better for the job than Devoy is beyond me, other than more familiarity with politics and politicians.

De Bres is regarded as a successful conciliator, working well behind the scenes, but he had outspoken critics too. That's the point, really - whoever takes that job has the God-awful task of trying to please everyone in an environment where not everyone can be pleased and sometimes it seems that no one is.

Where is it in New Zealand that race relations works best? Sport. Anyone who cannot see that must have been living on the moon.

That common endeavour, that striving together, that close proximity to each other through times of strain builds bonds that reach across racial, social and political divides.

Yet the academics, the politically motivated and the extremists can still bend things to fit their own agendas. Laidlaw, in his book Somebody Stole My Game, took a bit of a verbal and political battering for his chapter "Is Brown The New Black?", where he explored the differences between Pakeha and Polynesian players.

As you might expect from a former well-regarded race relations conciliator, Laidlaw started from a point where he assumed his audience would realise he had no racial axe to grind. His intent was clearly to applaud the differences between the races and to show how well they combined in the All Blacks. He still got a caning from those who perceived (or wanted to perceive) that he was saying only "smart" Pakeha players could fill rugby's thinking or tactical roles and that "dumb" Polynesians could only do the grunt or impact work.

Something similar occurred about 18 months ago when this column looked at a racial controversy involving Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez and remarked that New Zealand sport seemed mostly to have avoided the sort of racial hatred which still inhabits some sections of British sport.

That led to a professor of indigenous studies misquoting pieces of that column as an introduction to a column of his in the New Zealand Herald - about "rugby's dirty secret" being racism. It intimated that I'd said everything was rosy in New Zealand's racist garden. He claimed I'd said that derogatory terms such as "black" exist in rugby only as "joshing terms of endearment".

Uh, no, not so. The key passage read: "No one would be daft enough to say that New Zealand sport and society is free of racism. Of course it isn't. But we do seem to have absorbed, as a nation and as the peoples who inhabit it, that the colour of the skin is not a subject for abuse or even comment in sport ... Comments like "black", "honky" and other racial taunts that would be deeply inappropriate if used as a taunt are, instead, sometimes used as a term of endearment or as gentler joshing between members of rugby teams."

The professor, in his relaying of the sentiments, omitted the words "honky" (I wonder why ... didn't suit his agenda, perhaps?) and "sometimes", thereby entirely changing the meaning. Using that as a springboard, he then went on to claim various crimes of racial abuse in rugby and sport.

That's what you get when you stray into the vexed area of race relations, as Devoy has now discovered. She may or may not be a good race relations conciliator. That will depend not only on her diplomatic and political skills, yes, but also her ability to withstand the man (or woman) being played instead of the ball - all in the name of a good cause. Sport is a good teacher when it comes to that.

- Herald on Sunday

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