Booing Adam Goodes might not make you racist, but it does make you a flog

Will Russell / AFL Media / Getty Images

When he was named Australian of the year in January 2014, it’s unlikely Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes anticipated he’d become a lightning rod for race relations in the country 18 months later.

It’s a martyr’s task, but there’s probably no better man for such unpleasantness. But right now it’s obvious that this is a debate that has the potential to break even the bravest and toughest of men.

Goodes embodies values held dear in the Australian identity: a sportsman, a champion, a bloke who, time and again, is an ambassador for the fair go and watching your mate’s back. An indigenous man.

In 2009, at an age when many young sports stars are trashing hotels and fast cars, Goodes set out to help others. He’s a philanthropist who established the Go Foundation with his cousin and former Swans player Michael O’Loughlin.

His efforts in helping Aboriginal kids get a better education, jobs, and improved health, were cited as key reasons for his nomination as Australian of the year.

Yet the trope against him goes something like this:

Goodes has created the problem by bringing politics into his football. As an Australian of the year he was very disrespectful to the very society that bought him the privileges and rewards he is currently enjoying. He could have use that award to encourage others to follow his footsteps but saw fit to be divisive and play the victim card. At that point he lost the respect of most Australians.

That’s an actual reader comment on a story about the booing being racist and it’s repeated, ad nauseum, by those seeking to justify their actions.

Tony Abbott presents Adam Goodes with Australian Of The Year 2014. Photo: Getty Images

There are commentators now penning hand-wringing articles about how they’re sorry it has come to this point, having argued Goodes brought this on himself and hitching themselves to the crowd who say the Swans star is booed simply because he is a “flog”.

What’s at the core of this argument is that Goodes’s decision to challenge what Australia likes to tell itself about how black people in this country are treated is somehow divisive. It is not.

The disbelief is that a blackfella who’s “assimilated” so well into mainstream culture could seem so “ungrateful” for the opportunity “provided” to him, as if his success and ability is somehow a gift from middle Australia.

Give me a break.

They ignore the fact that in every address Goodes makes on the issue confronting Aboriginal Australia, he also appeals to our better angels, to share and celebrate the nation’s indigenous culture.

But this is the dark heart of the debate about whether booing Goodes every match, every moment he touches the ball, is racist or not. Too many people have lost sight of the meaning of sport, ceding its pleasure to a lynch mob meting out punishment for perceived infractions such as being a “flog” – their coy term for “wanker” – as if that somehow slips that sledge past the judiciary.

Despite a groundswell of people in the game rising up to insist racism is entangled in this treatment of Goodes, those who take comfort in their punitive behaviour seek to justify it with a long list of excuses.

None of them stack up. This is bullying at a national level as a national sport.

Some try to point to 2013, when Goodes stopped mid match to point out a teenage girl who called him an “ape” during a match against Collingwood. They argued the child is too young to know what she was doing, but the question should be what were the adults around her doing? Kids don’t pluck this stuff from thin air.

Goodes didn’t celebrate his team’s win that night, saying he was gutted. The girl called to apologise. The AFL star called for everyone to rally around her in support. It should be a lesson well learnt, yet it’s still used as a stick to beat the person wounded by it in the first place.

If you’ve ever seen this stuff up close, you’ll understand how chilling and heartbreaking it is.

I’ve been there when a young boy was racially sledged playing sport and it almost robbed the game of his enormous talent. It was devastating moment. How can you still believe in Santa and think it’s OK to abuse someone for their skin colour?

For nearly two years, I’ve listened to fans from rival teams boo Adam Goodes for no good reason other than he’s playing. That mindless niggle is taking its toll. Yesterday the Swans announced their veteran player is taking some time out and now it looks as if he’s even contemplating retirement.

Adam Goodes will miss this weekend’s match. Picture: Getty Images

Goodes is one of the true and rare greats. He’s played a remarkable 365 games and is a dual Brownlow medallist. The thought that he might never again play the game he’s given nearly two incredible decades to because of a spiteful, psychological war by some AFL fans has me wiping away tears.

I’ve never cried over a sportsperson before, but right now I’m angry and sad about what some people who’ll tell you at any opportunity that they love AFL are doing to Adam Goodes.

A game without Goodesy doesn’t feel the same. And the thought that the campaign rival supporters have waged against him has taken its toll on one of the toughest, yet also generous and erudite players in AFL fills me with rage and sadness.

As Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison put it once, referring to confronting sexism: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.

Some people are still arguing that the booing is not an act of racism. But as AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said last night, while there may be “different views about what is happening to Adam, it is impossible to separate this issue from the issue of race.”

It’s now abundantly clear that the effect it’s having on one of AFL’s very best is to bring him to the brink of leaving the game.

If you think that’s a good thing, then you don’t really love AFL. And by all means convince yourself that the booing is not perpetuating racism. But you’ll still be a flog.

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