BY ALEC SMART
The allegation that racism was at the heart of the relentless crowd booing that irked Australian Rules’ football player Adam Goodes has reignited, following recent screenings of a documentary film on his career, The Final Quarter.
It was further augmented by ABC sports commentator Charlie King, himself of indigenous descent, who singled out several media personalities for whipping up racist hectoring of the Sydney Swans’ star player.
Goodes, the 2014 Australian of the Year, twice Brownlow Medal winner for sports excellence, and Order of Australia recipient, was vilified in the media as well as continually booed by hostile crowds. This incessant criticism provoked him to abandon his highly successful football career in September 2015, aged 35, after a phenomenal 372 matches.
There are four main events that took place during the latter part of Goodes’ football career that propelled him into the radar, and, ultimately, the gunsights, of powerful and reactionary commentators, who systematically shot him down and encouraged members of the public to flog him mercilessly.
1) Goodes wrote an essay suggesting Aussie Rules may have been derived from the Aboriginal game Marn Grook.
2) Goodes reported a teenage girl who called him an ‘ape’ during a match.
3) Goodes was lauded as Australian of the Year 2014 but acknowledged the alternate term ‘Invasion Day’ for Australia Day.
4) Goodes celebrated kicking a match goal by performing an Aboriginal war dance in which he mimed throwing a spear in the direction of the opposing fans.
1. Marn Grook influenced Aussie Rules
In March 2008 on the 150th anniversary of the founding of Aussie Rules football, Goodes wrote an essay titled The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice, printed in The Australian Game of Football Since 1858. In it he suggested Aussie Rules might have been derived from the Aboriginal game Marn Grook that significantly predates 1858.
Detractors of Australian Rules football, some of whom think it is copied from the similar Gaelic football or at best a latecomer to the plethora of competitive team ball games, are probably unaware that it is the first version of the game known internationally as ‘football’ to be formally codified.
Its inventor, Tom Wills, although born and raised in Australia, was educated from the age of 14 at Rugby College in England during the 1850s, where he played an early version of the game we now know as rugby.
Prior to the foundation of Australian Rules, Aborigines across Australia’s south-eastern corner played a competitive game with a stuffed round animal skin ball (sometimes made of kangaroo scrotum!), known as Marn Grook, – either a Woiwurrung or Gunditjmara tribal word – meaning ‘ball game’.
Although the ball was kicked back and forth between team members and ‘marked’ – coincidentally called a mumarki – for a free kick by whomever caught it in the air, there were no goals scored and the ‘winners’ were the better side.
Goodes, in his essay, speculated that Marn Grook influenced Tom Wills when he codified Aussie Rules because, as a boy, Wills socialised with the Djab Wurrung Aborigines living near his home in The Grampians, spoke their language and likely witnessed the game being played.
However, Melbourne sports historian Gillian Hibbins angrily rejected the Marn Grook theory as a ‘seductive myth’ and went on to personally attack Goodes, her vexatious invective published across several News Corp publications, saying: “I’m sorry to say that I think it’s a racist comment.”
The AFL, along with many historians, now agree Marn Grook influenced Aussie Rules and in June 2019 they issued a statement: “Aboriginal history tells us that traditional forms of football were played by Australia’s first peoples all over Australia, most notably in the form of Marngrook. It is Australia’s only Indigenous football game – a game born from the ancient traditions of our country.”
Yet Goodes’ 2008 essay set the stage for a bigger showdown between him and the powerful reactionaries of Australia’s conservative media…
2. ‘Ape’ insult demeans black people
On 24 May 2013, during a match between Sydney Swans and Collingwood Magpies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Goodes was racially abused from the sideline. His tormentor, a young 13-year-old female Collingwood fan, called him an ‘ape’.
The match took place during the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, which occurs in the ninth week of the season to recognise and celebrate indigenous players and culture.
Goodes, in what some denounced as an over-reaction given his harasser’s young age, pointed the abusive girl out to security personnel and she was escorted from the stadium for a police interview.
The term ‘ape’ has long been an insult specifically targeted at darker-skinned people. It gained credence when Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (published 1859) was corrupted by eugenicists and racists, who believe humans evolved separately into superior and inferior species.
Darwin himself was portrayed as half-man, half-ape by his religiously conservative detractors, who insisted God alone designed humans.
These bigots promoted the falsehood that Africans and other darker-skinned races, such as Australian Aborigines, were more ape-like and less intelligent than paler-skinned Europeans.
When interviewed about the ‘ape’ gibe, Goodes said, “I am pretty gutted to be honest… To come to the boundary line and hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ‘ape’. It was shattering…
“But it’s not her fault. She’s still so innocent, I don’t put any blame on her, unfortunately it’s what she hears. It’s the environment she’s grown up in.
“I felt like I was in high school again, being bullied… I didn’t stand up for myself in high school… I decided to stand up last night and I will continue to stand up.”
The girl later phoned Goodes to personally apologise and afterwards Goodes Tweeted: “Just received a phone call from a young girl apologising for her actions, let’s support her please.”
The girl also sent a humble letter, which Goodes’ vociferous critics consistently fail to mention. “It was good to talk on the phone,” she wrote. “I’m sorry for being racist. I didn’t mean any harm and now I’ll think twice before I speak.”
Goodes thought he had used the opportunity to educate young people about harmful bigotry, but he underestimated the level of animosity from certain influential media commentators, many of whom despise being lectured on racism by an articulate dark-skinned man.
Andrew Bolt, News Corps’ conservative opinion columnist and host of the nightly Bolt Report on Sky News TV – who also has a 2010 Federal Court ruling that he contravened the Racial Discrimination Act – led the attack on Goodes’ integrity. As with all those who rounded on Goodes, they painted the abusive girl as a victim, and Goodes her oppressor.
Hostile football fans began booing Goodes at during games whenever he got his hands on the ball.
3. Invasion Day controversy
On 25 January 2014, Goodes was announced Australian of the Year, but his courteous acceptance speech on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra rankled his detractors because he dared to mention ‘Invasion Day’. This is an invective many indigenous rights campaigners use to lobby for a change to the date on which Australia Day is celebrated annually, 26 January, which they say commemorates Europeans’ conquering the continent but fails to take into account Aboriginal history.
“There was a lot of anger, a lot of sorrow, for this day and very much the feeling of invasion day,” Goodes said.
“But in the last five years, I’ve really changed my perception of what is Australia Day, of what it is to be Australian and for me, it’s about celebrating the positives, that we are still here as indigenous people, our culture is one of the longest surviving cultures in the world, over 40,000 years…
“It’s a day we celebrate over 225 years of European settlement and right now, that’s who we are as a nation but we also need to acknowledge our fantastic Aboriginal history of over 40,000 years and just know that some Aboriginal people out there today are feeling a little bit angry, a little bit soft in the heart today because of that, and that’s OK as well.”
On 28 January, in the aftermath of Goodes’ speech, Miranda Devine, another News Corp conservative opinion columnist, reacted to his Australian of the Year award in Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph:
“Adam Goodes is a terrible choice as Australian of the Year. A respected sports celebrity, he is being rewarded for victimising a powerless 13-year-old girl from a disadvantaged background. … does anyone think he would have won this time if he hadn’t made such a fuss about a little girl who yelled “You’re an ape” …?”
Reactionary radio broadcaster Alan Jones told the Sunrise program on Channel Seven, “The man is always a victim. Then he became Australian of the Year and tells us that we’re all racists, every time he speaks, Australia is a racist nation. People don’t like being told that stuff.”
The booing of Goodes at games increased.
4. Spear chucking offends, Haka doesn’t
On Friday 29 May 2015, during a Swans’ match against Carlton at the MCG – again during the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round – controversy resurfaced. Goodes – by now a two-time winner of the coveted Brownlow Award for outstanding sports achievements – celebrated scoring a goal by performing a 7-second Aboriginal war dance. At the end of it he mimed throwing a spear in the direction of the Carlton fans.
Andrew Bolt was again incensed by Goodes’ behaviour: “I thought Goodes was very silly to stage a kind of war dance and threaten fans with an imaginary spear… Goodes also inflamed rival fans by staging a war dance that included brandishing an imaginary spear at Carlton fans; a clearly hostile act. In fact, Goodes later explained that dance was a, quote, ‘battle cry against you guys saying who I am, a warrior, representing my people’… Now see how off that is? Inflammatory? Imagine a white guy pretending to shoot fans from another race..”
I did see a white player pretend to shoot rival fans with a bow and arrow after scoring a goal at an Aussie Rules match on Sunday 21 July 2019. No irate media personality complained, wrote excoriating words, demanded boycotts, called him threatening, or even booed. Unsurprisingly, the incident went completely under the radar of Bolt, Devine and Jones.
Goodes explained after the dancing incident that it was based on one he learned whilst in the representative under-16s indigenous team, the Flying Boomerangs, and that it was intended as an expression of Aboriginal pride during Indigenous Round.
“This is something that a lot of Aboriginal people are proud about. You ask any New Zealand person about the Haka. Do you think the Wallabies find that offensive? … Hopefully one day you might see us do the war cry at an AFL game, but from the reaction last night, it looks like that might be a fair way away.”
Alan Jones was still furious two months later when he told Channel Seven’s Sunrise TV program: “They’re booing Adam Goodes because they don’t like him, and they don’t like his behaviour, they don’t like the spear-throwing and the running in and doing a war dance and so on and provoking people. They just don’t like the fellow and Adam Goodes can fix all this by changing his behaviour.”
Ironically, “changing their behaviour” is not something conservative critics demand of New Zealand rugby players when they perform a haka Maori war dance prior to a match to spook their rivals, a tradition that extends back over a century.
On 3 October 1888, the New Zealand Natives rugby team performed a haka against Surrey in England. Then in 1905, the newly formed All Blacks, who to this day maintain an unmatched 77% winning average in their games, performed a haka before the start of their first international match against Scotland.
The haka war dance remains a standard and much-loved feature of New Zealand sports and cultural events.
The booing of Goodes reached unprecedented levels in the months following the war dance, leading to Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion condemning those booing as ‘ignorant’.
Owing to the stress caused by the booing and repeatedly negative media attention, Goodes retired permanently from AFL in September 2015 and did not attend that season’s Grand Final, where retiring players traditionally take part in a celebratory parade.
Four years later, In April 2019, on the eve of the premiere of The Final Quarter at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, the AFL and all of its 18 clubs issued an unreserved apology for the sustained racism and events that caused Goodes to abandon football.
An official statement issued on behalf of members, administrators, staff and players said: “Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football. The game did not do enough to stand with him, and call it out. We apologise unreservedly for our failures during this period. Failure to call out racism and not standing up for one of our own let down all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, past and present. Our game is about belonging. We want all Australians to feel they belong and that they have a stake in the game. We will not achieve this while racism and discrimination exists in our game… We will stand strongly with all in the football community who experience racism or discrimination. We are unified on this, and never want to see the mistakes of the past repeated..”
The Final Quarter is a 2019 Australian documentary about the controversies surrounding Goodes over the latter years of his sporting career. The film uses only archival footage and newspaper clippings.
Predictably, Australia’s outspoken conservative commentators, some of whom were portrayed very negatively in The Final Quarter, lambasted the film and ganged up to take swipes at Goodes. Most reprised their complaints about the perceived ‘victim’ status of the 13-year-old girl from Collingwood Magpies fans who called Goodes an ‘ape’ six years earlier.
Winmar’s shirt, repeated
Goodes’ defiance of the sections of the crowd that taunted and booed him are reminiscent of the infamous Winmar Shirt incident.
On 17 April 1993, Aboriginal St Kilda team player Nicky Winmar, facing down spectators from, ironically, the Collingwood Magpies football club, who were hurling racial abuse at him, lifted his jersey and pointed at his skin, shouting: “I’m black and I’m proud to be black!”
This incident was captured in iconic photos and in July 2019 a statue, based on one of the images, was unveiled at Optus Stadium in Perth to commemorate Winmar’s stand.
In 2013 Adam Goodes, long before he was systematically booed and jeered, wrote about Nicky Winmar’s proud defiance: “It’s something that stands in history, which proves that you can call me all the things you want, you can discriminate against me, say all these things, but I’m still going to be black, I’m still going to be proud.
“That’s exactly what the photo symbolises to me. Even today, 20 years later, it highlights how every Indigenous person should feel about their heritage.”