Goodes saga lays bare systemic racism

July 31, 2015
If Adam Goodes, one of AFL's greatest modern champions, retires prematurely due to the abuse, it will go down as another moment

Australia, the “sporting nation”, has a problem. The idea of Australia as the “fair-go” country must be laid to rest as a myth.

Australia is a racist nation that has shown that it will never tolerate an Aboriginal person “getting above themselves”. The Adam Goodes saga — in which the Sydney Swans superstar has faced repeated booing from AFL crowds ever since he performed a traditional Indigenous war dance to celebrate a goal during the AFL's Indigenous round in May — has laid bare the racism for all to see.

A defence has been launched: people don’t boo Goodes for his race, they boo him for his on-field and off-field behaviour.

Goodes’ off-field behaviour includes campaigning for the rights of this country’s Aboriginal people and calling for a more understanding and fair-minded attitude. Such outlandish concepts seem too much for many in Australia.

Goodes may not be booed — and attacked by commentators — for the simple fact that he is an Aboriginal person. But it cannot be doubted he is abused because he is not content with the place of Aboriginal people.

The likes of columnist Andrew Bolt and broadcaster Alan Jones launch defences of the racist bullying, as is only to be expected of such racist figureheads. They point out that other Aboriginal players are not booed.

But other Aboriginal players have not been put on the pedestal that Goodes has — a sports star made Australian of the Year and even a figurehead for the government-supported “Recognise” campaign. The attacks on Goodes are bitterness that a Black man could be given such platforms only to still dare speak out of turn.

Australia accepts its Aboriginal people in token ways, but it does not accept the original inhabitants of this country having their own say.

For all the shock the racist abuse has generated among many who had hoped this country had moved beyond its often ugly past, it reflects the reality of the daily racism facing Aboriginal people.

This racism is systemic. It is not just that Australia was founded on dispossession and genocide. The furor over plans to close up to 150 Aboriginal communities this year shows this dispossession is ongoing.

The community closure threat follows the Northern Territory intervention that imposed apartheid laws on Aboriginal communities, stripping them of what little self-determination they enjoyed, while opening up more of their land for mining companies.

It comes as Amnesty International condemns Australia's racist justice system, under which Aboriginal people are jailed at a higher rate than Blacks were in South Africa. It comes as many Aboriginal communities live in Third World conditions and die on average about 20 years sooner than the rest of the community — facts closely linked to the ongoing dispossession and denial of land rights.

Goodes real crime is to turn the mirror back on white Australia — calling out not just racist abuse, but in an article defending John Pilger's documentary on Aboriginal suffering, Utopia last year, condemning the systemic oppression Aboriginals face.

The reason there was an outcry when Goodes threw an imaginary spear while celebrating a goal is because white Australia's war on Aboriginal people is not over. Even a symbolic expression of fighting back is too much.

To oppose the racism expressed against Goodes means tackling its root causes — the systemic racism this nation was founded on.

The furore shows the sporting world is not cut off from the rest of society, but an intrinsic part of it. Both the injustices of the broader world, and the desire to resist them, find expression in sport.

There is now talk that Goodes is considering retiring — after 365 games, two Brownlow medals, three club best -and-fairest awards, after leading the Swans' goal-kicking for three seasons, winning a Rising Star Medal, a spot in the Indigenous Team of the Century, four All-Australian selections and two AFL premierships.

If Goodes retires prematurely due to the abuse, it will go down as one more moment of shame in Australia's racist history.

When an AFL player retires, he traditionally takes his place in a motorcade around the MCG on Grand Final day. If Goodes makes such an appearance and is booed, it will be broadcast around the world. It is hard to imagine how much pain this will cause to Goodes as an individual, but it will show up Australia as a racist's paradise.

There is opposition — famously shown by Goodes' Aboriginal teammate Lewis Jetta.

On July 26, Jetta performed a war dance of his own after kicking a goal against the West Coast Eagles in an act of solidarity with Goodes, who Eagles fans booed every time he touched the ball.

The AFL has brought itself into disrepute by not finding ways to defend one of its greatest players of all time. But it is finally beginning to speak out.

Goodes has received support from many in the sporting community. Aboriginal NRL stars Greg Inglis and Jonathan Thurston have spoken out for Goodes.

Brendan Goddard, an Essendon midfielder and head of the AFL Players’ Association, has acknowledged the viciousness of this campaign.

There has also been talk of players collectively leaving the field if Goodes faces booing — something that won't be tested as Goodes is on indefinite leave from the Swans and it remains uncertain if he will ever take to the field again.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan has finally called for an end to this behaviour and several AFL coaches have urged their supporters not to boo.

The last defence of racists have launched is that Goodes is booed for his behaviour. He does not just “get on with it”, but makes a fuss. They want him to just play the game, not continue to remind a nation that would prefer to forget that racism is alive and well.

But Goodes points out racism — famously calling out a 13-year-old girl for racially abusing him from the crowd during a match last year.

For this, he was accused for picking on a young girl, but in the middle of a match, acting spontaneously in the heat of the moment, Goodes could not judge the age of the fan he famously pointed to. After calling her out, Goodes went to great lengths to ensure she did not get attacked and was dealt with fairly. He could surely have never anticipated that the nation’s scapegoat would turn out to be himself.

Another claim is that Goodes is targeted because he does not play fairly — he “stages” for free kicks and slides into contests on the field, thus endangering other players. But there other players who have similarly negative reputations — deserved, or undeserved — but they are not singled out for such treatment.

That particular abuse is reserved for Goodes — and Goodes alone — and even then, only now, a full 17 years into his career.

It was only after Goodes began calling out racism and making public displays of Indigenous pride that suddenly his alleged on-field misbehaviour made him such a target for hatred.

The ugly racism has been exposed. The challenge for anyone sickened by this is how to respond — build opposition to racism wherever it appears, on and off the field.

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