Commentary

Fans' slurs reduce sport to the Goodes, the bad and the ugly

SYDNEY • The most successful sporting franchise in Australia has a racial problem that is taking voice in football stadiums across the country.

Adam Goodes, Australian Rules football's most prominent indigenous player, is being relentlessly booed. For weeks now, each time Goodes nears the ball, pockets of the crowd have erupted in ugly jeering.

AFL crowds are particularly vocal, but Goodes knows what he is hearing. In June, after slotting a goal against Carlton, the Sydney Swans midfielder - one of the finest players of the modern era - charged at a braying section of the opposition crowd with a fierce war cry , ending with the feigned toss of an imaginary spear.

The game had never seen anything like it.

 

"I haven't had an opportunity to show that passion, and that pride about being a warrior and representing my people and where I come from," Goodes said the next day.

Australian football is deeply tribal, and opposition fans have fair reasons to harbour a grudge against Goodes... But there is a side to the jeering that makes it difficult to believe it has no racial undertone whatsoever.

"There was nothing untoward to the Carlton supporters. It was actually something for them to stand up and go, 'yep we see you, and we acknowledge you - bring it on'."

Has an imaginary spear ever cut so deep? Pictures of apes soon appeared on Goodes' Wikipedia page. Veteran television commentator Dennis Cometti was audibly uncomfortable about the mid-game war dance.

"Probably best not to do it," he said, "(because it) won't stop the booing."

Another commentator, Dermott Brereton, a highly decorated former player, also disapproved.

"To actually run at somebody in a war dance... it actually signifies 'I want to be violent against you'," he said. "No good can come of it."

Goodes has unusual political awareness for a professional athlete, borne out of "being the object of racism so many times that you lose count", as he wrote in a 2008 essay.

He used his platform as Australian of the Year in 2014 to declare John Pilger's harrowing documentary Utopia - about the experiences of Aboriginals in modern Australia - had made him "ashamed to be Australian ".

If there was a starting point to the current controversy, it came in 2013, when, after a contest on the boundary in a match against Collingwood, Goodes repeatedly pointed at a section of the crowd. Someone had called him an "ape", he said. It was a young girl.

"To hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ape... it was shattering," he said. "Racism has a face. It's a 13-year-old girl."

The teenager was ejected from the stadium and took a panning in the media with a torrent of criticism that Goodes tried to quell. That's about when the booing started. For the AFL, it sounds like the howling of a dark past.

Just 18 indigenous men played football at the highest level between 1906 and 1980. If they even made it to the field (one player, Doug Nicholls, was rejected in the late 1920s because he "smelt") they would enter a cauldron of unchecked racism, protected by the game's old code: What happens on the field stays there.

But the game's governing body, the Australian Football League (AFL), has since become a national leader on race-related issues, introducing an annual indigenous round of fixtures and championing the cause of Recognise, the campaign to include reference to Australia's First Peoples in the nation's Constitution, and to insert a clause banning racial discrimination.

The number of indigenous players in the game has rocketed, too, with 71 now registered at elite level, according to the AFL's count. The league has embraced Goodes' awareness of his heritage, and held him up as one of the game's ambassadors.

Now he is asking: How committed are you to this, really? Those who jeer have mounted a spirited defence online and across call-in radio programmes. On Wednesday, conservative columnists and the Sydney radio host Alan Jones were at one in blaming Goodes for bringing vitriol on his head by singling out the 13-year-old girl in 2013, and subsequently posing as a victim.

Australian football is deeply tribal, and opposition fans have fair reasons to harbour a grudge against Goodes, not just because of his electrifying skill, but also the perception that he milks free kicks from umpires.

Also true is that other indigenous players, such as fellow Sydney Swans superstar Lance "Buddy" Franklin, are not subjected to the same harassment. But there is a side to the jeering that makes it difficult to believe it has no racial undertone whatsoever.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'Fans' slurs reduce sport to the Goodes, the bad and the ugly'. Print Edition | Subscribe