Booing of Aboriginal player a test for Australia

Aboriginal activist and Australian Rules football legend Adam Goodes (left) training with Sydney Swans teammates at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Tuesday. Goodes has been subject to relentless booing from rival Australian Rules crowds for months now.
Aboriginal activist and Australian Rules football legend Adam Goodes (left) training with Sydney Swans teammates at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Tuesday. Goodes has been subject to relentless booing from rival Australian Rules crowds for months now.PHOTO: REUTERS

Taunts faced by Aussie Rules footballer spark fresh concerns about racism in the country

When Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes walks into a stadium to play tonight, it will not just be a sporting event, but also a test of the country's character. 

For months, Goodes has been subject to relentless booing from rival Australian Rules crowds, in what has been described as the most shameful episode in the 157-year-old history of the country's most popular sport.  

The scandal has dominated newspaper front pages and has drawn in Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who suggested it  "smacks of racism" and urged crowds to stop booing. 

"No one should be subject to taunts; they particularly shouldn't be subject to racial taunts," he told Sydney's Radio 2SM. "The last thing we want in Australia is anything, anything at all, that smacks of racism."

For many, the ugly saga has been seen as something of a litmus test of Australian levels of xenophobia and the country's willingness to accept its Aboriginal minority. The nation's 700,000 or so Aborigines make up about 3 per cent of the population but have disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, unemployment, poverty and poor health.

Goodes, 35, a former Australian of the Year and a highly decorated footballer playing for the Sydney Swans, has been an outspoken advocate against racism. But he angered some when he stopped a game in 2013 to point out a 13-year-old girl in the crowd who had called him an "ape". He later insisted he did not intend to start a "witch-hunt".

Crowds this year have increasingly booed him whenever he touches the ball. Though the game's officials have united to condemn the heckling, they have struggled to end it.

Goodes responded to the booing in May by performing a traditional  Aboriginal war dance - a move which further incensed his critics. 

Two weeks ago, the saga was further inflamed during a game in Perth, which included constant booing. One crowd member was expelled by security after telling Goodes to "get back to the zoo".

In the ensuing controversy, the head of the Australian Football League, Mr Gallon McLachlan, described the booing as "sheeplike". He said it was unprecedented and was damaging the image of the sport, which has successfully encouraged Aborigines to play.  

A sports commentator, Ms Rebecca Wilson, said she had "never been involved in anything as racist as this in sport in Australia in the time that I've been reporting it".

"I'm embarrassed to be Australian; it makes me want to cry, to be honest," she told a Melbourne sports radio station.

Goodes decided to sit out last weekend's game after his team offered him time to recover.  The captains of all teams in the league pledged their support.

Most political commentators and leaders have defended Goodes and described the booing as racist. But others - mostly right-wing commentators - have argued that Goodes brought it on himself with his on-field behaviour and his attacks against racism in Australia. 

"There are 71 indigenous players (in the league)," controversial right-wing radio commentator Alan Jones told Channel Seven. 

"One is being booed. Does Adam Goodes ever look into the mirror and ask himself why?... The man is always a victim, Then he became Australian of the Year and tells us that we're all racists."

Goodes reportedly considered retirement over the booing.  In his absence last weekend, his team ran through a banner which said "Respect" and Aboriginal flags were waved in the crowd. He said this week that the gestures made him "feel very loved".

"I think people have had their opinions, they've spoken about the issues and hopefully now we can move forward… I really want to focus on my football and really enjoy that side of it again," he said on his club's website. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Booing of Aboriginal player a test for Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe