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Booing Adam Goodes

Aug 19, 2019 • 15m47s

Adam Goodes’s AFL career was played at the intersection of race and politics. Stan Grant on what his story says about white Australia.

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Booing Adam Goodes

60 • Aug 19, 2019

Booing Adam Goodes

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

Adam Goodes is one of the great AFL players of his generation. His career was played, especially in its final seasons, at the intersection of race and politics. Stan Grant on the weight of that story and what it means now.

[Theme ends]

STAN:

Sport’s a holy place for Australians isn't it, in some ways. It's a very levelling experience no matter who you are or what you do, you can go to the football and you can cheer and yell out as much as anyone else.

ELIZABETH:

Stan Grant is a journalist. He wrote the documentary, The Australian Dream.

STAN:

And sport occupies such a critical place in the Australian imagination. I think sport is always very important to us and our sense of who we are. But sport also masks a much darker side of Australia. It gives the appearance of equality and egalitarianism that doesn't really exist. And for Aboriginal athletes they always knew that the deal was that we may let you come on the sporting field but you're not going to have equality outside of that and even your equality and acceptance on the sporting field really depends on whether or not we're prepared to accept you and how you behave. And I think that's why the Adam Goodes story resonated because it challenged those ideas of the Australian identity. It asked us hard questions about who we are and I think that became very real for Australians.

ELIZABETH:

Stan, you’ve just finished making a documentary about Adam Goodes. Let’s talk about his early life and his path into sport.

STAN:

He has a Indigenous mother and a non-Indigenous father. And he’d lived a very itinerant life. He’d grown up away from his mother's ancestral country and of course his mother was part of the Stolen Generations. I think that Adam saw sport as a way of finding an acceptance that he maybe couldn't find outside of that. Having that combination of athleticism, size, and speed, lateral vision, and many of these things are hallmarks of Indigenous players and I think he ticked all of those boxes. I mean when you're looking at the career achievements...

[Music plays]

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“A. Goodes, three votes. The winner of the 2006 Brownlow Medal is Adam Goodes.”

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“Goodes is the 12th player to win the medal at least twice, and the first Aboriginal multiple Brownlow winner.”

Archival tape — Unidentified AFL commentator:

“Big fly bird, Goodes came rolling through, he can, come of the moment, come of the champion. [Crowd roars]”

STAN:

He's one of the premier athletes of his generation and certainly in the top rank of AFL players of any generation.

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“Number 37, Adam Goodes.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

He's in his mid twenties when he's racially vilified for the first time on field. How does he describe what that experience does to him in that early part of his professional career?

Whenever you experience this. I know I've experienced in my own life. It leaves you breathless and I think for Adam it was confronting once again that you don't belong. That there is a part of you that someone can target. There is a vulnerability and a weakness that people seek. That's what racism is, racism is about power. It's about using that power over someone else. It also came at a time when Adam was exploring who he was, his history and his Indigenous identity. So when you're racially abused, it comes with the power of history. It comes with that sense of belonging, and that question of who you are and how you fit in. It was a moment that he'd seen other people experience but you start to wonder about, at what point do we say no to this? And that leads up to what we saw ultimately with the stand that Adam took.

ELIZABETH:

And that stand happens in 2013, he's playing at the MCG, Collingwood against Sydney Swans. What happens?

STAN:

You can see that moment and that sort of hush that falls over the crowd and the commentators. You know, what's happened here...

Archival tape — Unidentified AFL commentator:

“Not sure what’s happened there… has Adam Goodes had a word to somebody in the crowd do you think?”

Archival tape — Unidentified AFL commentator:

“He definitely pointed, went back and pointed at someone in the crowd. Something has happened there.”

STAN:

Someone said something. “Goodes, you're an Ape”, and Adam turns and points and says, “No. Out. Get that person out of here.” And then there's the realisation from Adam that this came out of the mouth of a 13 year old girl, who maybe didn't know the full impact of what she was saying. Adam himself had said we need to understand this girl, don't blame the girl, but something said to her, “This is what you can say to an Aboriginal person”.

Archival tape — Adam Goodes:

“Why is ape so offensive? I think if you ask any non-Indigenous person that question, they might ponder what it does mean. I think for me, I know exactly what the term ‘ape’ means and how it’s used and unfortunately it is a word that really cuts us people deep, and it definitely cut me deep that night.”

STAN:

And for Adam, that's a reminder of everything that he’s discovered about his own history. When you call someone an ape, you are saying, “you are not human”, and that's what happened to Aboriginal people. The land was taken from Aboriginal people on the basis that they effectively were not human. They did not enjoy the rights that other human beings enjoyed and all of that came together and this was going to be something unlike any other I think and unlike any other moment in Australian sport or even in our recent political history. And of course it grew from there didn't it. It just continued to grow.

ELIZABETH:

That debate kind of breaks out in 2013 and then in 2014 the next year, Adam is named Australian of the year...

STAN:

And it starts again. He's awarded Australian of the Year on the basis of his work for reconciliation. Adam is about bringing people together, not about dividing people. He dedicates his term of Australian of the Year to speaking out and to educating and getting conversations going around racism. But immediately people seize on the speech to say, “You are lecturing us, here you are pointing the finger at us again. How dare you use the Australian of the Year to tell us how racist we are”. And it feeds into the backdrop of the culture wars. This idea about the black armband, telling the truth about history. George Brandis says people have a right to be bigots. It feeds into the immigration debate. This is where sport meets politics and it's a critical moment in so many ways, and Adam comes to embody so much of that.

[Music plays]

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Stan it’s 2014, Adam Goodes has been made Australian of the Year and he’s used the platform to call for an end to racism in Australia but on the field he’s being booed.

STAN:

At this point the booing had gone from one year to the next. You know when you hear that, it sounds like a jet taking off. It is a visceral thing. This noise it goes right through you and it was every time he got the ball, it was anytime he was near the ball. And you continually get people who say, “We’re not booing him because he’s black, we're booing him because we don't like him, we don't like the way he plays”, or, you know, “He stages for kicks” and all the things that we heard. But there is a chronology. You can join the dots. And it's impossible to separate those things from who Adam is and what he's talking about. There is something else happening here. It isn't just about football anymore.

When a nation is founded on the idea of terra nullius of empty land of the invisibility of the people, of the extinguishment of the rights of people, then the only way for people to find a place in that society is to enter that society through colonisation. To enter that society through the prism of white Australia. It’s white Australia that is setting the rules. It’s white Australia that is setting the terms of acceptance. It’s white Australia that is deciding whether you belong or not. It’s indeed white Australia deciding whether you are Aboriginal or not. You know, half caste, quarter caste… assimilation is at the root of this idea. There were Aboriginal kids who went into dormitories in boarding homes where they would wake up every day with signs above their beds that said, “Think white, act white, be white”. Think white, act white, be white. To be accepted is to become white. It's almost as if you were not visible to Australia until you start to resemble them.

And I think for Adam, he was confronting that. Here is someone who does have a white father. Here is someone who is Australian of the Year. Here is someone who has described himself as an assimilated man, as someone who is part of Australian society. And then rejected because he stands against them. White Australia turned on him with such vitriol and venom because they felt it was a repudiation of them. “You're meant to be one of us. You're meant to be one of the good ones. You're not like the rest.” I've heard that myself. People said that to me and then you stand up for who you are and demand to be seen for who you are. And it challenges these people, it challenges their idea of who they are.

ELIZABETH:

You say very powerfully that Adam, in doing so, commits the greatest sin.

STAN:

Well that’s it, the black man who complains. The angry Aborigine. No one likes the angry Aborigine. We like the passive. The docile. “We'll accept you but don't talk about history”. Adam stands up against that and it's a tough place to be. Who wants to be that person, who wants to carry that burden? But it's touched something deep in the Australian soul that we've never dealt with and that is the original sin; the idea that a country can be taken from a people and that we don't reconcile that.

ELIZABETH:

In 2015, it gets to the point where that burden… it is immense and it has essentially gotten into the place that Adam has reached the height of success by any definition. He misses a game initially, sits out a round, and then what happens next in his career?

STAN:

Well think about this, okay. What started in 2013, it is now 2015. This has not let up. This is relentless, week after week after week.

Archival tape — Adam Goodes:

It’s just a continual battle at the moment and it’s frustrating. You know, just to have all that bad energy targeted towards me, it’s just disappointing.

STAN:

Now I don't know what that would be like to be the subject of a public discussion and debate picking you apart, pouring over your every action, every word, and by 2015 Adam takes himself away from the game, says, “I can't do this. I can't… I'm not going to allow myself to be subject to this, to give people a platform, to give people a focus for this vicious campaign. It touched something very personally and deeply within me, because it was the Australia that I tried to escape, and then coming back to reality you don't escape it. It's who you are, it's your country, it's your history. Those boos reminded me of my childhood, of all the stories I'd heard from my mother and my father. The brutality that their families had suffered”.

And in Adam's plight I think I saw the struggle of all Indigenous people. I would like to think that the people who booed Adam did not boo for all of us and were not us. But I’m not entirely sure of that. When we finally heard the people standing up to support Adam, I would like to think that that is the true voice of who we are. But it is still not yet a voice that can speak powerfully enough to change the country.

ELIZABETH:

What's Adam's relationship to football now?

STAN:

Adam is making the choices in his life that are good for Adam Goodes. He came back. He played out the rest of the season, and he walked away without fuss at a time of his choosing. And I know a lot of people would love to see him come back and people want closure. They want reconciliation, they want healing. But a country's never healed and a country is never reconciled. We live with all of it. The best we can hope for is to recognise each other and respect each other, and to try to find a way to live with our history without denying it or silencing it. But to heal, reconcile, or to close that chapter, I think that’s asking too much.

Nations need a story. I don't think that laws define a nation. I don't think that politics or borders or flags or anthems define a nation. I think a story defines a nation. We need to create space to hold all of our stories in this country and to write a new story for all of us.

ELIZABETH:

Stan Grant, thank you so much.

STAN:

It's a pleasure. Thank you.

[Music]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news, Macquarie Media has told top rating breakfast host Alan Jones that his contract will be terminated if he repeats comments similar to those made about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arderrn, last week. Jones had said Scott Morrison should confront her, over her statements on climate change, and quote, “Shove a sock down her throat”. Macquarie Media, which owns 2GB, is in the process of a full takeover by Nine, a deal that Jones supports.

And in America, Donald Trump has indicated that ANTIFA, a term that loosely collects anti-fascist groups, is being considered for listing as an organisation of terror. His comments come ahead of anti-Trump protests in Portland, Oregon.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Tuesday.

[Theme ends]

Adam Goodes is one of the great AFL players of his generation. His career was played, especially in its final seasons, at the intersection of race and politics. Stan Grant on the weight of that story and what it means now.

Guest: Writer and broadcaster Stan Grant.

Background reading:

Adam Goodes and writing a new Australia in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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60: Booing Adam Goodes