Sport is often portrayed as part of the ‘bread and circuses’ designed to distract us from the problems of life. It provides an escape from whatever it is that afflicts us. During a game or contest we can turn off our minds and exalt in the skill and daring of players and teams. Sport is at its most interesting when it contradicts this contract, when it raises broader issues off the field; issues that go the heart of who we are. Issues that may be hidden from the public gaze, or simply ignored, are there for all to see on the field of play.
Adam Goodes, an Indigenous Australian player, has decided to take a break from playing for the Sydney Swans following booing at him by spectators at away games. By any measure he is an outstanding player who will find his way into the AFL Hall of Fame. He has played 365 games, kicked 454 goals, been a member of two premiership teams and won two Brownlow Medals. He also performs charity work.
During the 2013 Indigenous Round – in which the AFL celebrates the contribution of Indigenous players – against Collingwood, where he played an almost perfect game, Adam Goodes was called an ape by a 13 year old girl. He instinctively took exception to this and pointed to the girl who was escorted from the game. In 2014 he was appointed Australian of the Year. He acted as an ambassador for tolerance between original and ‘new’ Australians. In the 2015 Indigenous Round he performed a war dance after scoring a goal. He wanted to celebrate who he was.
In 1993, St. Kilda’s Nicky Winmar responded to racist abuse that had been directed at him and fellow player Gilbert McAdam by sections of the Collingwood crowd in a game at Victoria Park. At the end of the game, he could not stop himself from celebrating who he was when he lifted up his St. Kilda strip, pointed to his stomach and said ‘I’m black, and I’m proud to be black.’ Two years later, Essendon’s Michael Long forced the AFL to confront racism on the field after being abused by Collingwood’s Damien Monkhurst. After some initial fumbling the AFL, to its credit, acted pro-actively to stop such practices. Racist abuse, I have been told, no longer occurs on the field.
When Adam Goodes instinctively pointed at the 13 year old girl who abused him, he in effect said that he wanted spectators to treat him in the same way that fellow players treated each other. There should not be a distinction between on- and off-field. Adam Goodes has become a lightning rod for a long lasting tension that exists within Australia: the treatment and attitudes of ‘new’ to original Australians. This is something that is usually swept under the carpet. Sport’s prominence forces it into the public gaze.
It is useful to look at other players and athletes who have found themselves lightning rods or standard bearers. The African American Jack Johnson won boxing’s heavyweight championship in a bout at Rushcutter’s Bay in 1908. He was so wealthy, famous and confident that he wouldn’t let such hatred get to him. His wife said of him ‘There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared’.
Satchel Paige was a leading pitcher in the Negro Baseball Leagues in the second quarter of the Twentieth Century. He made a small fortune in ‘barnstorming’ or exhibition games touring America. His was a time of racist bigotry. He took whatever he could, when he could, trusted no one and retreated into himself.
Hank Greenberg was a leading Jewish American baseball player of the 1930s and 1940s, who was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, both on the field and by spectators, throughout his career. It got to him, to the extent that his children didn’t learn about their Jewish heritage until their teens. It was only in later years, away from the fray, that he exalted in the example he had provided for other Jewish Americans.
Jackie Robinson was the first African American to break the color bar that had traditionally operated in baseball. He was subjected to unrelenting abuse, worse than anything Hank Greenberg experienced. It ate away at his soul. His early death at age 58 has been linked to the abuse he received in these years.
Adam Goodes is no longer simply an AFL player. He has assumed an importance in the cultural life of Australia. He has forced Australia to look at itself; especially its ugly side. Like Nicky Winmar, in instinctively standing up for himself and his people, he is arguably in the process of assuming the mantle of the most significant player in the history of Australian sport.