The most successful sporting franchise in Australia has a problem. Really, it is a problem with the country, the original problem, finding 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 erupt in ugly jeering.
On Sunday, the saga reached a new pitch when one of Goodes’s Indigenous team-mates, Lewis Jetta, marked a late goal against the West Coast Eagles bymimicking a spear-throwing gesture, in response to the hounding of Goodes throughout the game by Eagles fans.
Nowhere in the world are Australian sports fans known for their grace. AFLcrowds 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 a 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.
“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 commentator Dennis Cometti was audibly uncomfortable at the dance. “Probably best not to do it,” he said. “Won’t stop the booing.”
Another, Dermott Brereton, 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, born out of “being the object of racism so many times that you lose count”, 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 had made him “ashamed to be Australian”.
The year before, 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,” Goodes 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 (one 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.
Goodes’s war dance echoed the defiant gesture, 22 years before, that arguably kicked off the discussion of race in the game.
In front of a heaving Collingwood crowd hurling racist abuse, Indigenous player Nicky Winmar suddenly lifted his St Kilda shirt and cocked a middle finger at his stomach. He roared, “I’m black and I’m proud to be black.”
Shame is stirred slowly. Little changed for two years. In 1995, during the annual Anzac Day match, probably the game’s biggest stage outside the grand final, a Collingwood player wrestling with Indigenous Essendon stars Michael Long and Che Cockatoo-Collins cried, “Get off me, you little black cunt”. The umpire, within earshot, did nothing. Long did something new: he made an official complaint.
“Long is Australian football’s Mandela moment,” says writer and journalist Martin Flanagan, who has recently written a book about Long and race in the game.
“As the politics of the dispute escalates, the football public, which is overwhelmingly white, back the black man against the white institution,” he says. “And so overnight the culture of the game changes.”
Public pressure, coupled with Long’s relentless pursuit, forced the AFL to introduce Rule 30, the country’s first sporting law banning racial vilification on the field.
AFL administrators now pose comfortably before that famous image of Winmar. Long is widely acknowledged as one of the game’s legends. The code has become a national leader on Indigenous 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 constitution, and 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’s 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?
The jeerers have mounted a spirited defence online and across call-in radio programs. 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 begrudge Goodes, including his electrifying skill, and the perception he milks free kicks from umpires. Also true is that other Indigenous players, such as fellow Sydney superstar Lance “Buddy” Franklin, are not subjected to the same harassment.
But there is a darkness to the jeering that makes it difficult to believe it has no racial undertone whatsoever (which feels a little like insisting, as per Gamergate, that it’s about the ethics of booing in football).
Fairfax Media sportswriter Jake Niall has drawn on race theorist Shelby Steele, who writes of two kinds of African-American public figures: “challengers” and “bargainers”.
Bargainers emphasise the “us”, forging an unwritten pact with the white public not to show anger at historical racism, provided the public doesn’t hold their race against them.
Challengers such as Goodes – and Long, in a less confrontational way – don’t let the white public off the hook so easily, forcing them, as Goodes put it himself in June, to “have a conversation”.
Probably for some the jeers are mindless, just revelling in something taboo. But increasingly, that dull drone is sounding like an assertion of power: crowds of non-Indigenous people declaring, “We will keep doing this and you can’t stop us”.
On Tuesday Goodes was granted two days’ leave from the club. He is reportedly considering retirement.
Should he return this week, the booing is unlikely to relent. There is no feel-good ending in sight. And nor should there be, Flanagan says.
“This was not an artistic installation at [the museum] Mona,” he says. “It’s a war dance. And in the context of two peoples who have an awful, bloody history.”