Sport career transition : stories of elite Indigenous Australian sportsmen

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International research into sport career transition (SCT) has consistently found that life after sport is fraught with uncertainty for elite athletes. Planning for post-sport careers is therefore most important, something that progressive sporting bodies have begun to realise in recent years. Within the sport industry, SCT programs have emerged to provide frameworks through which athletes plan for retirement, and pathways by which to transition out of sport into a new career and lifestyle. The thesis focuses on a key problem within the SCT paradigm: that it has been presumed that an end to elite sport requires a process of adjustment that is common to all players. That rather narrow perspective fails to acknowledge the situational complexity and socio-cultural diversity of elite athletes, a population group with varied personal circumstances, and thus arguably different individual SCT needs. In developing that argument, this thesis focuses on an athlete group that does not fit ‘mainstream’ participation in elite sport, nor the ‘conventional’ SCT policy milieu. The context is Australian sport, and the focus is with a small but significant number of Indigenous athletes who, notwithstanding substantial socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural obstacles, have contributed significantly to elite-level Australian sport. While many Indigenous Australians have assumed high profile careers in sport, little is known about their transition to a life after sport, or their experiences of retirement. To address this research gap, the thesis explores the SCT experiences of 30 current and former male Indigenous athletes from three sports: Australian Rules football (i.e., AFL), rugby league (i.e., NRL), as well as professional and amateur boxing. The inquiry uses an interpretive phenomenological methodology, and draws inspiration from a Bourdieuian conceptual framework. In depth, face-to-face interviews featuring open ended questions facilitate story-telling and narrative data collection: there is a strong emphasis on giving voice to the participants. Subsequently, Bourdieu’s sociological theories of habitus, capital, and field, provide an interpretive lens around which to frame and analyse the interview responses. The thesis concludes that although elite sport provides Indigenous Australian athletes with many opportunities for a secure life beyond sport, these athletes remain vulnerable and at risk due to: 1) the primacy of Indigenous athletic identity; 2) assumptions about their ‘natural’ acumen as athletes; 3) the perpetuation of racialised beliefs and behaviours; 4) the sense of Indigenous responsibility for, and commitment to, extended families and traditional community networks, and 5) a perceived Indigenous invisibility that tends to reduce the range career choices thought available to Indigenous athletes after sport. Indigenous AFL footballers, rugby league players and boxers have needs that will continue to evolve over time. Sport managers need to recognise this changing environment, their responsibilities to the professional development of athletes, and the needs and perspectives of Indigenous sportsmen playing elite-level sport. The thesis provides an understanding of this situation, by giving voice to stakeholders, who demonstrate that Indigenous athletes experience SCT in complex and unique ways.
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