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A tale of two footballers: The contrast of Goodes and Folau

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Adam Goodes has been awarded an honorary doctorate for his human rights work (image via Twitter @SydneySwans).

The respective treatment of Adam Goodes and Israel Folau illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the Right, says former Federal Labor MP Chris Haviland.

RECENTLY AT THE Sydney Film Festival, I viewed The Final Quarter, a brilliant documentary directed by Ian Darling, about the racism saga surrounding the end of the career of AFL champion, Adam Goodes. It was even more moving and profound than I had expected.

As a Sydney Swans member as well as a passionate advocate of equality and social justice, I knew the story well, as I had lived through it as someone very much aware of and absorbed by the events in question. 

Adam Goodes was, by any measure, a champion AFL player. He played 372 matches for the Swans, won two Brownlow Medals, two Premierships, 3 club Best and Fairest awards and was selected in the All-Australian Team four times.

A proud Adnyamathanha Indigenous man, he was a member of the Indigenous Team of the Century. He also became the 2014 Australian of the Year, awarded for his community service, not for his footy achievements.

Of his 372 games, I once counted up how many of them I had attended. It is 243, around 65%. I watched most of the others on television.

The film is a superb presentation of a sorry and disgraceful episode, of which all Australians of goodwill should be ashamed. It exposes a mean-spiritedness amongst Australians which continues today, judging by recent events.

Surely nobody can deny that racism and bigotry are alive and well in this country.

This brings me to more recent matters involving another high profile footballer, Israel Folau.

Folau, like Goodes, is unquestionably a champion sportsperson. He has played in no less than three football codes, representing Australia at both Rugby League and Rugby Union and playing senior AFL with the GWS Giants.

Like Goodes, Folau has used his high profile to make public comments about matters other than football.

Goodes’ comments were mostly about Aboriginal disadvantage, dispossession and ongoing racism, both on and off the footy field. Folau’s comments stem from his religious faith, or so it is claimed. Some have described them as hate speech.

So let’s examine the stark contrast in the responses of the right-wing commentariat to the views and comments of both players.

Adam Goodes was relentlessly attacked, as the film shows, by the likes of Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt. There were others as well, like Eddie McGuire and Sam Newman and many in the AFL media. Don’t get me started on McGuire. That would require a whole other article.

Former Federal Opposition Leader Mark Latham, in his desperate search for relevance as a right-wing polemicist, wrote a scathing piece attacking Goodes in the Australian Financial Review at the height of the saga.

On the other hand, Jones and Bolt have all come rushing to defend Folau, following his comments suggesting that gays and other “sinners” should go to hell.

These were comments that resulted in Folau’s contract being terminated by Rugby Australia.

“Freedom of speech” they all cried in relation to Folau. Mark Latham even devoted a section of his first speech in the NSW Legislative Council, where he now represents Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, to a vigorous defence of Folau, along with his usual attack on “political correctness”.

Latham was at it again on June 6 in the Legislative Council, with a motion defending Folau.

Of course, no such “freedom of speech” defence was afforded Adam Goodes, an Australian of the Year, when he talked about racism.

In fact, Latham, in his AFR article, even claimed that those booing Goodes at matches, including Latham himself, were the ones entitled to freedom of speech, but not Goodes.

We know that the likes of Jones, Bolt and their followers don’t really care about being fair-minded or consistent.

Freedom of speech only applies to those who agree with them.

They are right-wing attack dogs who will likely never change. People should judge their contributions for what they are.

But what of Mark Latham? Latham is unrecognisable from the man I knew as a Labor Parliamentary colleague in the 1990’s. Elected in 1994 as the member for Werriwa, he was a celebrated protégé of the great Gough Whitlam.

Gough would turn in his grave if he could hear Latham today. It might be a coincidence, but Latham’s more extreme utterances have mostly occurred since Gough passed away. These include his mean-spirited attacks on Goodes, on another Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and on a number of female journalists.

Some of my ALP colleagues would disagree with me about Latham having changed that much. They would say that he was always a loose cannon. But even in 2014, when I invited him to speak at an ALP forum about Party democracy, he managed to make some sense.

He may have upset some factional warlords, but he’d hardly be Robinson Crusoe there (his appearance at my forum did earn me a "spray" from Albo! With the benefit of hindsight, Albo was right).

However, since then Latham has gone way beyond the pale. It is really difficult to fathom. But in the context of this article, perhaps it is fitting that he is now with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. People are often judged by the company they keep. Nowhere is this truer than in politics.

It was Hanson, assisted by John Howard from 1996, who changed the tone of our public discourse about matters of race.

After years of hard work by Labor governments – of which I was proud to be a part both in political office and previously as a public servant – to bring about greater equality, tolerance, multiculturalism and diversity, we descended into an ugly echo of our bigoted, racist past.

We were told we were being “swamped by Asians”, we had "children overboard" and the demonisation of Muslims, with the ugly “race election” of 2001. We had a Prime Minister who refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations. We had the Cronulla riots. We had the Northern Territory intervention and we had our now current Prime Minister urging his Shadow Cabinet colleagues to adopt divisive anti-Islamic policies to win votes. And much more.

All of which undeniably set the tone and the climate for the appalling treatment of a wonderful Indigenous footballer, Adam Goodes, as the film shows, from 2013 until he was virtually hounded out of the game in 2015.

In just one example of the tone that was set, early in 2014, North Melbourne’s Sudanese defender, Majak Daw, was racially vilified by spectators during a match. A journalist reporting on the incident made a flippant comment along the lines of: “Majak Daw is now firming in favouritism to be the next Australian of the Year”.

That someone could even joke about such a topic, implying that Adam Goodes only received his award because he was called an “ape” at the footy tells you all you need to know about the toxic climate of the times.

It's similar with Israel Folau and the “debate” about so-called religious freedom. The ugly debate that accompanied, and has now followed the marriage equality plebiscite, has resulted in those who opposed marriage equality on so-called religious grounds, seeking special privileges to discriminate against gays, in the guise of “freedom of speech” or “freedom of religion”. What happened to freedom from bigotry and discrimination?

Finally, here is something I posted on Facebook in 2015. It is worth repeating here:

In 1968, at the Mexico Olympics, two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, won Olympic medals in the 200 metres; Smith the Gold and Carlos the Bronze. They were joined on the podium by Australian Peter Norman who won Silver.

 

Smith and Carlos were proud black men who were determined to highlight discrimination and human rights abuses in the U.S., which still had racial segregation in many states.

 

They famously raised their arms in a salute during the US National Anthem, which led to them being sent home and ostracised in the U.S.

Norman, a white Australian who supported their protest, was similarly ostracised in Australia.

In 1994, Cathy Freeman won a Gold Medal in the 400 metres at the Victoria (Canada) Commonwealth Games. A proud indigenous woman, she carried an Aboriginal flag around the track in her lap of honour. For this, she was roundly attacked by the usual right-wing shock jocks, but also by conservative MP's and others.

I was an MP at the time, and if you check the Hansard records, you will find that I was the only MP to defend Freeman in the House of Representatives.

Now, in 2015, Adam Goodes, a champion Sydney Swans AFL player, dual Brownlow Medallist and dual Premiership player, and 2014 Australian of the Year, dared to perform an Indigenous war dance in celebration of a goal in a match played in the AFL's Indigenous Round.

He too has been attacked by the usual suspects. It follows a number of ugly instances where he has been jeered at matches clearly because of his advocacy on indigenous issues.

We really haven't progressed much as a society, have we?

Well, as The Final Quarter shows so effectively, we haven’t.

I am eagerly awaiting another film about Adam Goodes’ life and career, The Australian Dream which screens at the Melbourne Film Festival in August. If it’s half as good as The Final Quarter it’ll be worth the wait.

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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