The Australian Dream is a compelling story about racism suffered by Indigenous Australians, with Goodes’ harrowing experience as the prime exhibit. I was privileged to see Stan Grant’s eight-minute introductory speech about the history of racism in Australia and his motivation for making the film.
Emotional, powerful stuff from Grant, himself a proud Indigenous man.
It was a wonderful production which achieved what it set out to do: to expose the entrenched racism against our First People by showing how the Goodes story unfolded.
For me though, having witnessed the saga as a Swans supporter as well a passionate opponent of racism, there was something missing from the story.
It has been said that the film is a story about racism and Indigenous suffering, rather than about football. This is an accurate reflection.
There were wonderful interviews with Goodes, with his great friend, Michael O’Loughlin and with Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar. And some of the big footy moments were relived as part of the narrative.
It was clear that racism was the overwhelming motivation for the booing of Goodes at matches, as well as the disgusting comments on social media aimed at Goodes that were revealed.
But there was something missing. Something that has eaten away at me since 2015.
It is complex. I am perhaps unusual in that I come to this issue with two different perspectives, one as a political activist appalled by racism and bigotry, and the other as a Sydney Swans member and lover of AFL footy.
I find myself wondering, as I did early in 2015, whether, had Goodes played for a Victorian club, these events would have happened, or whether they would have escalated the way they did. The debate about the crowd’s booing of Adam Goodes, which started in 2014 and gradually increased in 2015, was essentially this: was the booing racially motivated, or were there other factors?
The evidence of both of these films overwhelmingly shows that racism was the driving factor.
However, early in the 2015 season, I was in two minds. Yes, there was racism, but there was something else as well. It was prejudice of a different kind. Victoria-centric parochialism is the simplest way to describe it. It took me back to my childhood when Victorian cricket fans at the MCG regularly booed Richie Benaud when he was Australian captain.
I wrote something about this for social media but didn’t publish it. I didn’t want to provide an opportunity to let the racists off the hook by suggesting an alibi or an excuse.
To explore further, let me return to when Goodes was named Australian of the Year, on January 26, 2014.
Goodes was not the first sports star to be named Australian of the Year. Far from it. Indeed some critics believe that too many sportspeople win these awards.
Nor was he the first Indigenous Australian to receive the award. Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Neville Bonner, Lowitja O’Donoghue, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Cathy Freeman and Mick Dodson have also been winners.
However, Goodes was the first AFL player to win the award. Given the place of Australian rules football in Australia’s sporting landscape and indeed in our society, this comes as a surprise. It should have been seen as a significant moment, even though Goodes’ award was not for his footy skills but for community service.
But there was no response from the AFL congratulating Goodes on his achievement. No media statement, no press conference. Nothing.
Finally, after about 3 weeks, a journalist asked the AFL’s CEO, Andrew Demetriou for his reaction to Goodes’ award. Demetriou said what he had to say, that it was a great achievement for Goodes. But that was all.
You would have thought that the AFL community would be bursting with pride at one of its champions, a dual Brownlow Medallist no less, becoming Australian of the Year. It was as though they were embarrassed.
The Australian Dream revealed some disgusting social media reaction to Goodes’ award. Perhaps the AFL were afraid of a backlash from these elements.
But the reality is that, at the time, the AFL was at war with Goodes’ club, the Sydney Swans.
Another Indigenous champion, Lance Franklin, had just signed a nine-year contract, reportedly worth $10.2 million, to play for the Swans. The AFL had hoped that Franklin would sign with the new Sydney club, the GWS Giants.
So they were unhappy, and there were reports of a threatening, expletive-laden phone call to Swans Chairman Richard Colless from the AFL Chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick.
Following fury from the Victorian clubs led by Eddie McGuire, with false claims that the Swans had abused their Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), the AFL subjected the Swans to unprecedented scrutiny and harassment over the Franklin contract, and began a process to punish the Swans by cancelling the COLA which had existed for nearly 20 years to compensate the Swans for the additional cost of living in Sydney and the considerable cost of retaining players in Sydney.
The Victoria-centric AFL media, led by McGuire, escalated its propaganda campaign against the Swans, which had started within a week of the Swans 2012 Premiership when the club announced its intention to sign Kurt Tippett of Adelaide.
So the announcement of Goodes, the Swans’ highest-profile player, as Australian of the Year was rather inconvenient for both the AFL and the Victorian media. And the relentless anti-Swans publicity only encouraged those racist elements on social media to attack Goodes’ award even more.
Early in 2014, North Melbourne’s Sudanese ruckman, Majak Daw, was racially vilified by spectators during a match. A journalist made a flippant comment along the lines of: “Daw is now firming in favouritism to be the next Australian of the Year”. That someone could even joke about this reveals much about the discourse at the time.
Goodes missed the first few matches in 2014 due to injury. When he returned, it didn’t take long for the booing to start whenever he played in Melbourne.
Lots of theories started to emerge as to why Goodes was being booed. They included:
- He “staged” for free kicks;
- He was a “dirty player”;
- He was a good player for the opposition; and
- He was “divisive”.
The latter “reason” was to do with his raising of issues about racism, Indigenous dispossession, the Stolen Generations and “Invasion Day” in his role as Australian of the Year. It was particularly propounded by people like Andrew Bolt and Sam Newman.
This “reason” clearly comes under the heading of racism, together with the tall poppy syndrome. In other words, some AFL supporters don’t mind Indigenous players, as long as they keep their mouths shut, or as Waleed Aly aptly described it, “know their place”.
But let’s examine the other “reasons”.
“Staging” refers to a player exaggerating an action to show the umpire that he has been fouled and should receive a free kick. Many Victorian commentators, led by McGuire, accused Goodes of staging. However the facts do not support this. Goodes was only 168th in free kicks received that year.
Players in many sports will try to convince a referee or umpire to give them a favourable decision. Ironically, one of Goodes’ chief accusers of staging was cricketer Shane Warne, who made his accusation via Twitter after a match against Richmond.
Warne’s comments featured on the Fox Footy program of his mate, Eddie McGuire, who was at the forefront of allegations against Goodes. For Warne, renowned as an over-zealous appealer for a "leg before wicket" as a bowler, to make such an accusation, was the ultimate in hypocrisy.
In a career spanning 372 games, it’s possible that Goodes occasionally let an umpire know he deserved a free kick. But many players do it each game!
In one of those matches, Goodes was racially vilified by an Essendon supporter. But to their eternal credit, other Essendon fans reported the culprit, who was escorted from the ground and had his membership cancelled. Essendon is one club that has a proud record of zero tolerance of racism.
The “dirty player” allegation is hard to fathom. In 372 games, Goodes was suspended only twice, each time for one match. On an earlier occasion, he received a reprimand due to his good record. On other occasions he was cleared. That is an impressive record for such a long career, especially for a player so often in the thick of the action.
The idea that Goodes was booed just because he was a good player is simply rubbish. Yes, supporters sometimes boo star players from opposition teams. But it has never reached anything like the extreme level that it did here.
In 2014, the Swans finished on top of the ladder and met Hawthorn in the Grand Final. Unfortunately they were well beaten that day. But the match was notable for the disgusting booing of Goodes by Hawthorn supporters, which led to an angry debate on social media.
The criticism of Goodes can obviously be traced back to racism.
Chris Haviland is a former Federal MP. He is a 40-year member of the ALP and a 25-year member of the Sydney Swans.
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