Adam Goodes is a former champion of the Australian Football League, having represented the Sydney Swans for eighteen years. He twice won the game’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal, played in two premiership teams, selected in the Indigenous team of the century and selected four times in the all-Australian team. In 2014 he was named Australian of the Year.
In May 2013, Goodes was racially abused by a 13-year-old spectator during a game. He immediately highlighted the slur, and the spectator was removed from the ground.
The next morning he said:
“To come to the boundary line and hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ‘ape’, and it’s not the first time on a footy field that I’ve been referred to as a ‘monkey’ or an ‘ape’, it was shattering.”
Early that afternoon he tweeted:
“Just received a phone call from a young girl apologizing for her actions. Lets support her please.”
Soon after, he told reporters:
“I just hope that people give the 13 year old girl the same sort of support because she needs it, her family needs it, and the people around them need it. It’s not a witch-hunt, I don’t want people to go after this young girl. We’ve just got to help educate society better so it doesn’t happen again.”
Despite his expression of support, it seems that some football followers did not appreciate Goodes calling out the young girl for the abusive comment, as he started to be booed at games.
The practice continued for the remaining two years of his career, until his retirement in September 2015 at the age of 35 following a semi-final loss to North Melbourne.
Conservative newspaper columnists and radio hosts who have criticised Goodes and excused the booers, have expressed their dislike of: his alleged “milking” of free kicks; his response to the May 2013 racial abuse incident; his on-field “war dance” following a goal in May 2015 during the league’s “indigenous round“; and, in discussing Australia Day, his reference to past feelings of “anger, a lot of sorrow . . . and very much the feeling of invasion day”.
Those incidents and the public response have been showcased in the documentary “The Final Quarter“, by Ian Darling, released in June 2019.
While watching the documentary, I was reminded of a July 2015 radio interview with former Victorian premier and Hawthorn Football Club president, Jeff Kennett.
When he was introduced, I had anticipated some support for Goodes, being aware of Kennett’s role in founding and chairing Beyond Blue, an organisation addressing the issues of depression, anxiety and suicide. Instead, I was finding it difficult to comprehend what I was hearing.
Kennett, like the conservative columnists and “shock jocks”, denied the booing was racially motivated and claimed that Goodes had brought it on himself. In the six minute interview, he used the word “provoke”, and derivatives of it, twelve times.
He was asked by the presenter, Patricia Karvelas:
“Are you really surprised Jeff Kennett that an indigenous person who has felt like he has
suffered racism his entire life would want to talk about those issues and elevate those issues to talk against racism. Does that surprise you?”
“Patricia, it matters not. The things that I’ve said have been part of Adam’s conduct in the past couple of years. No one forced him to do it, he did it himself. So therefore, people in a sporting field, in a colosseum, have responded against those acts. It isn’t a response against, it isn’t a response based on racism.”
My response to Jeff Kennett is that a modern sporting field is not the Colosseum. In ancient Rome, the crowd would have the final say in whether a gladiator lived or died.
A modern elite Australian Rules footballer may have honed his or her skills over a lifetime. They are rewarded for applying their talent in one of the most brutal forms of sport in the world, but they should not be at the mercy of a crowd baying for blood, whether in a physical or emotional sense.
A player exposed to tens of thousands of football fans can be bullied relentlessly by cowards making the most of their position hidden in the crowd.
They can be bullied by public figures in privileged or majority positions, who lack empathy with those who have been exposed to racism or other forms of discrimination all their lives.
A disturbing aspect of the experiences of Adam Goodes is that it has exposed this lack of empathy in people who have been entrusted with positions of power, such as Kennett in his roles as state premier, president of an AFL club and president of a body claiming to address the issues of depression and anxiety.
The new documentary may open some eyes and hearts, but many detractors of Adam Goodes and others like him may dig in to their entrenched positions even harder than before.
Australia may have a long way to go before we can legitimately claim to be fair and decent society. We all have much to lose until we can.