Several years after graduating from The Australian National University (ANU), Jennifer Darmody (LLB/BFin ’15) was working as a solicitor at a top-tier law firm when she made the decision to sign with an Australian women’s road cycling team and pursue life as an athlete instead.
At this pivotal moment in her career, Jennifer called upon some of her former teachers and mentors at the ANU College of Law: Professor Pauline Ridge, Dr Michelle Worthington and Professor James Stellios FAAL.
“As well as offering words of encouragement, they secured enough research and teaching work to allow me to support myself as I travelled to the United States to race (unpaid) for a professional road cycling team based out of Boston,” Jennifer said.
“I will forever be indebted to each of them not only for their support during my career, but for giving me the chance to fall in love with teaching at ANU”.
It was the opportunity to race across the United States that saw Jennifer first experience the depth of the issues facing women’s sport.
“I learnt of the impact that US policies were having in achieving gender parity in sport, but also in violating the rights of athletes, such as transgender women and girls,” she said. “I knew that I needed to return to the US to study how policy can promote, but also violate the rights of those who are vulnerable to abuse in sport.”
Jennifer’s ticket back to the US comes in the form of a Fulbright Scholarship to study a Master of Laws at Columbia University, focusing on the civil and human rights movement for women, transgender and minority athletes.
With her postgraduate studies commencing in August, Jennifer will be taking a break from her roles as a sessional academic at the ANU College of Law and lecturer at Sydney University and Charles Sturt University.
In this Q&A, Jennifer explains the intersect between sports law and human rights, expresses her love for teaching, and outlines her plans for her Fulbright Scholarship and beyond.
What does it mean to you being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship?
The Fulbright is not like other scholarships. It is about much more than funding. It is an opportunity to join a select group of people aspiring to achieve meaningful change in a global community. To be awarded a Fulbright feels simultaneously like a massive achievement, but also a huge responsibility to fulfil a promise to have a meaningful impact on both a global and local level.
Being selected is the Fulbright Commission saying, “we believe your dream for change is an important one and we believe that you are the person with the ability to achieve that change”. To have that backing from an organisation which has been supporting global change through education for over 70 years has to be one of the most powerful promotions available to any young professional.
What are some of the key human rights issues facing transgender and minority athletes?
There is no doubt that the exclusion of transgender women and girls from sport is one of the biggest issues facing sport. Having competed in elite sport for a number of years now and being connected with professional athletes across the world I know the issue is a complex one. But I have no doubt that the answer lies in inclusion. To suggest otherwise, is, in my opinion, discriminatory and founded on baseless fears that the integrity of women’s sport is under threat.
The abuse of children and women in sport is obviously the most disgusting issue facing sport at the moment. In 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse identified a systemic failure across sporting bodies in Australia to protect children from harm. Since then, countless reports of abuse (both physical and mental) have emerged across sporting bodies in Australia involving both children and women. The issue is obviously a global one.
Lastly, and on a more personal level, during the pandemic I experienced the struggles of a number of friends trying to protect their legal rights as professional athletes in an environment where they have little to no bargaining power. As one mate said to me, “when you get selected to go to the Olympics, you take what you can get. You don’t complain”. In sport, the bargaining power of athletes is constantly under threat because there is always someone willing to take your spot.
I could go on. But the main point is that when we explore issues in sport we are not just promoting change for athletes. The sporting arena is one of the most powerful, public platforms for exposing injustice and promoting broader social change.
What are some of your goals, personally and academically, for your Fulbright Scholarship?
The drive behind applying for the Fulbright Scholarship and studying the LLM at Columbia is to return to Australia to achieve change and protection for women, transgender athletes, children and minorities in sport.
On my return, I aim to design and teach a course at an Australian university that focuses on the intersect between sports law and civil and human rights. In Australia, ‘sports law’ is not a prominent area of the law. It is rarely taught at universities and is largely only practiced by large international firms. A lack of policy and legal resources mean that litigation is often confined to high-profile athletes involving commercial disputes.
Through teaching I hope to inspire students to become a part of the development of sports law as a means for promoting gender parity and change for those who are vulnerable to abuse in sport. I also aim to establish the first pro bono law clinic for athletes in Australia. Having witnessed the profound impact of pro bono clinics through volunteering, I believe pro bono representation will play a critical role in achieving change for women and minorities in sport. It is my dream to establish this clinic as a student-run centre to combine my love for teaching with my passion for advocacy.
At a time when students are calling for greater inclusion and greater diversity in their university community and in their learning, I see this plan as an opportunity for me to achieve positive change not only for the student body, but for the broader community.
In a society such as Australia that cares so much about sport, the sporting arena has time and time again shown itself as a commanding platform for speaking out on issues of equality, racism, abuse of minorities, mental health and inclusion. What we see when these issues are challenged on the sporting field creates a platform for debating these issues on a broader social level.
At ANU, your teaching excellence has been recognised through awards and citations. What do you enjoy most about teaching law?
I believe teaching is one of the most powerful ways to advocate for change. Being surrounded by a classroom of eagre and intelligent minds with differing backgrounds and perspectives surely has to be one of the most valuable platforms for exploring and promoting change in the law.
Finally, you join Professor Jolyon Ford SFHEA as another ANU Law Fulbright Fellow in 2022. Can you share a bit about the influence he has had on you as a colleague and mentor?
I had the pleasure of teaching Torts for Professor Jo Ford in 2020. I reached out to Jo last year when I was invited to interview for the Fulbright Scholarship. Jo reminded me of the importance to be myself, and have confidence in my proposal. He reminded me that Fulbright is an opportunity to join a diverse community of people who are achieving meaningful change within society. He inspired me to devote everything I had to be successful in that interview. I doubt I would have succeeded without his advice.
I have been incredibly lucky to have had the most wonderful mentors at the ANU both during my degree and my career. What makes the ANU College of Law so special is the opportunity to grow as a student under the mentorship of the best academics in the country.
I have been extremely lucky to have the guidance and encouragement of the wonderful Professor Pauline Ridge, Professor James Stellios and Dr Michelle Worthington both when I was a student and afterwards in my career development. They have been there at every stage of my career to offer words of wisdom and encouragement as I contemplated what I was trying to achieve in the law.
Students should be reminded that to leave ANU without forming meaningful connections with staff and students is to miss out on one of the most valuable opportunities law school has to offer.
The 2023 Fulbright Scholarship Applications are currently open and will close on Wednesday 6 July. Jennifer has kindly offered her assistance to any ANU Law students, staff or alumni who are considering applying for a scholarship this year. She can be reached at email@example.com.