Playing footy, we’ve just been told, is a privilege and not a right.
The pronouncement came from National Rugby League boss Todd Greenberg who, in the context of women in sport, told the ABC TV’s 7.30: “It’s a privilege to run out, to represent your team or your state or your country. It is not a right for any of us.”
Greenberg is the latest in a long line to raise the rights versus privileges dichotomy, though applying it to sport is relatively unusual.
In Australia, it’s more often applied to citizenship – which the government likes to say is a privilege rather than a right.
Whatever the context, it sounds profound but means little.
A right is something inherent or, in a less secular age, god-given. Some constitutions confer rights. The United States’ declares life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be unalienable rights.
Privilege comes from the Latin privilegium, meaning private law. It relates to a benefit or protection to a specific person or institution. Parliamentary privilege is an example. The point about a privilege is that it can be given and taken.
To return to sport.
Everyone has the right to aspire to play for Australia, but obviously not the right to actually do so. That requires great talent and dedication (and, in some sports these days, an attachment to group think and role modelling).
Much the same applies down the sporting food chain. You’ve got a right to try out for the Black Stump Skinks and if you’re good enough you should get a game. And continue to, provided you don’t thump someone or otherwise transgress the laws of the game.
It gets trickier with girls wanting to play in boy teams, though this is lessening as far greater opportunities for young women are created.
Trickier still is the rights or privileges of transgenders. Should a person with the bulk and speed and strength of a man compete against women, especially in contact sports? Do the rights of the girls who get flattened come into it?
The Americans vent most over rights and privileges. Much of it, unsurprisingly, relates to health care and leads to questions like, can one pursue happiness without health?
Or, why is owning a gun a right but getting decent health care a privilege?
One answer is that health care is neither a right nor a privilege, but a service. And people have no right to health workers’ care because they aren’t slaves.
Part of the trouble with the word privilege is that it evokes images of high birth, rich daddies, elite schools and the like.
That’s the privilege that the French Revolution was supposed to abolish at a stroke. In its place the French got Liberty Equality Fraternity.
It sounds great, but how much fraternity is there in the Paris banlieue?
Privilege is probably too loaded a word to be much use outside politics, where words are weapons.
More useful is a notion of limited rights, or rights with obligations. You have a right to drive, but an obligation to be sober; a right to play sport, with an obligation not to cheat; or, as the Americans might say, a right to hunt, but an obligation not to shoot game wardens.