For many AFL fans, the last week in September is the time of the year where we reflect on a season that could have been and dream of next year.
One thing we can be sure of is that we won’t see Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes on a football field again. This saddens me. I think the reason for this is the sense of unfinished business. What should have been the rounding out of a great career or even the saddling up for one last crack in 2016 now has a full stop on it. But even in retirement, questions about Goodes’ legacy and actions remain.
How the debate evolved
It has been a long and arduous journey since that fateful night in May 2013. Late in a game between Sydney and Collingwood, Goodes requested the removal of a girl from the stands for calling him an ape. A few days later, AFL powerbroker and Collingwood president Eddie McGuiure made gags about Goodes and King Kong. McGuire later admitted this amounted to racial vilification.
These incidents polarised people. They were forced to pick sides, as opposed to participating in a more sophisticated unpacking of an issue about societal vagaries regarding race politics in Australia as seen through the prism of sport.
But the heat really came on Goodes when he talked about race and prejudice in his 2014 Australian of the Year acceptance speech, and then again when he spoke of racism and invited Australians to see John Pilger’s film Utopia.
Australians did not like hearing this. Goodes began to be loudly booed at some games. Talkback and tabloid news fed on it and the white noise became amplified. Outrage grew.
Indigenous war cries became a “threat” as misinformation swirled. People were beyond angered. They were sick of the sight of Goodes. He played on.
Even the AFL’s commissioners were reportedly divided over Goodes. This perplexed me. Whenever race issues surfaced in the past, former CEO Andrew Demetriou was not just strident in denouncing them – his message was clear.
Goodes remained stoic as debate around him grew. Then came Round 17, 2015, and a game against West Coast at Subiaco. The booing was as loud as it has been. For Goodes it was too much. He retreated to family and friends. But not once did he complain.
Goodes returned and treated us to some great football. And in his last game against North Melbourne he made his teammate Rhyce Shaw the story as he too retired. Shaw was chaired off, but despite Goodes having made his mind up to retire he kept it quiet. He did not need the fuss made.
Goodes resisted overtures to attend Monday night’s Brownlow Medal ceremony and to have one last lap on the MCG on Grand Final day.
Some may have been happy that this uppity blackfella had left through the gift shop. Maybe some felt ripped off that they would not be able to give him one more razz as he went around the MCG in an open-top car. Maybe some felt saddened that they could not show their gratitude for all he gave to the game. Maybe some just felt indifference, believing that the bloke was just a whinger and a cheat and that they would not dignify that with anything.
But what cannot be in dispute is Goodes’ dignified resistance. What he would do and when he would do it goes to the heart of his agency as a player, and his retirement would not be influenced by a team edict that he had adhered to for 16 seasons. Despite all the barbs and the bon mots, the decision to decline an invitation to the Brownlow – an award he won twice – was his and his alone.
If we can do anything that is remotely respectful it is to see Goodes’ class not just as an Aboriginal or a man, but as an Australian. Don’t think so? Just as Goodes allowed Shaw’s retirement to take place by sacrificing his own, can you imagine for a moment what it would be like if, as he was being chaired off, the booing was as loud as at Subiaco?
People in sports bars around the world would have turned to their Australian friends and said, “Why are they doing that?” The discussion would have to start again about the girl, about McGuire, about King Kong, about the war cry.
But the subtext and reality would be that Australians can’t handle Goodes or his message because that message is too real for many of us. As a consequence we would prefer to simply look away or tell the TV image of Goodes to “piss off”, as the stories we know align more with Bradman, Bondi and Beersheba.
Disagree? Then ask yourself this: how many of you took up Goodes’ invitation to see the Pilger documentary?
We should be thankful that Goodes played and that we were able to watch him. The question now is: who will step in to fill his shoes? And will we boo that person when their message contains something that we don’t want to hear?
Sean Gorman is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University. This article first appeared in The Conversation on 30 September 2015.