I met Adam Goodes very briefly in a restaurant in Randwick in 2000. He was then not well known but my sports-mad son Oliver noticed him and pestered me to let him request an autograph. I eventually relented and, when he trotted over, I signalled to Adam my apology at interrupting his dinner but he was very gracious and gave Oliver more time than I might have in the same circumstance. I had no idea he was aboriginal at the time, not that it was relevant. Anyway, I am predisposed to like him.
Goodes first became strongly associated with aboriginal politics, in the public mind at least, when he pointed out a girl in the crowd, who had called him an “ape”, to security staff. Over the next 24 hours he appeared to step back from his anger of the moment. I have no doubt that his anger was spontaneous but his actions were regrettable for two reasons.
First, there is an expectation that players do not interact with the crowd at all – certainly not adversely – to avoid the possibility of the violent crowd reactions that have been seen in other codes. Any incident of violent crowd invasion would result in a fence around the boundary and I think that none of us want that. The days of Plugger giving the FU arm pump to the opposition cheer squad are over.
Second, there is a very good chance the girl was not being racist at all. I grew up in Melbourne in the 60s and the term “ape” was commonly used. We were all white though so our use of the term was not racist. It basically meant someone who was bigger than you but less smart or skilful. The term would be most aptly deployed against a bully. It was synonymous with “gorilla” which could be used the same way. “Get off me you big gorilla!” So I think there is every chance that the girl was using it in this way. Goodes is a big guy who knows how to throw his weight around. A passionate supporter who knew the word could easily call him an ape if he was monstering players on her team (though it you think about it, it is a poor epithet because Goodes is big and skilful).
Following that incident, Goodes was named Australian of the Year. I thought this was a terrible idea at the time, since his main claims to fame were (a) being an outstanding footballer and (b) the Ape incident (which of course was called Apegate). Neither of these is a qualification. True he has done some work with aboriginal youth groups but lots of footballers do community work. Certainly, the reason cited by the committee was “his advocacy in the fight against racism.” The appointment was clearly conceived by those with a (benign) ideological agenda. It was partly an FU to Andrew Bolt who has criticised Goodes and his reaction to the Ape incident. It was a partisan appointment which Goodes decided to embrace.
Now to the main point.
Aboriginal players are not routinely or specifically boo-ed. Goodes is routinely boo-ed when other aboriginal players are not. This obviously requires explanation and more or less proves that the booing is not racist per se.
The reason Goodes is boo-ed (only by some people we should stress) is not that he, as a member of a minority, must be a grateful supplicant as Waleed Aly suggests. It is, in my opinion, because he has broken a sacred covenant, the covenant that sport should be separate from politics. That is why sport is such an important social glue in this state. Green and coalition supporters can discuss the game and the rules around the water cooler and they know that they are united in their love of the game and a recognition of its unifying influence.
To be fair to Goodes, it is the AFL that has been consciously politicising the game for a decade. You may have noticed that Andrew Demetriou was boo-ed every time he was seen as well. Did you really not know why? Blind media commentators feigned ignorance of the reason for that as well, or put it down to the good old Aussie contempt for authority or to the tall poppy syndrome. Yes, there is some of that. But anyone who has participated in footy blogs will know the answer. It was his aggressive insertion of a leftist political agenda into everything AFL. I should say that some of the political agenda I support, but not as part of football. He was routinely referred to as Vlad or The Communist on these AFL blogs. It will be interesting to see if Gill McLachlan attracts the same ire.
Adam Goodes has, of his own free will, decided to use his football fame to promote a political cause. He is entitled to do so. It may even be a good idea in the bigger picture. However, if you enter politics then you enter a battle field that is different to the football field. The main difference is that your opponents may not respect you and that you will polarise people. I think he understands this and accepts it.
The latest instalment in the saga is the “war dance”. Commentators are still claiming Goodes did not plan it. There is so much bad faith in public discussions of anything around aboriginality! Goodes even contradicts himself on this point:
Yeah, it wasn’t something that was premeditated….
Lewis Jetta and myself had a chat on Thursday that we wanted to represent on Friday night and we wanted to do a dance …
Of course he planned it, not for that precise moment perhaps, but because he was annoyed by the booing and wanted to make the point that he would not be cowed. He can’t admit as much because that would be admitting that he was challenging the crowd which is against the AFL code.
For sure now, the booing will redouble because politics is like that. Anyone who has commented on blogs will know this. If you go in hard against a troll then you get heaps back. The point of going in hard is not to stop the troll but (at least most charitably interpreted) for the benefit of other people who are watching/reading and might be persuaded. Goodes will be hoping to polarise some supporters as well as detractors. I expect that he is happy to see the booing increase to keep the issue on the front page.
What are the AFL going to do about it? Ban booing? I wouldn’t put it past them. But I suggest another course of action.
How about everyone who thinks Adam Goodes is in the right cheer him every time he gets the ball and try to drown out the booers? I suspect the booers will be outnumbered and will tire of it. And it will take the wind out of the sails of all those commentators who make their living saying what a sick racist society we are.