I think Eddie McGuire may have inadvertently done us all (Adam Goodes excepted) a favour with his mug lair attempts at ‘humour’ on Melbourne radio Wednesday morning.
All week I have had the feeling that the Friday incident had been publicly concluded to the self-satisfaction of the AFL and the P.C. ‘chattering classes’. Eddie’s Presidential response on Friday night was straight out of “Public Relations Crisis Management for Dummies” (though he does seem to struggle with the same mea culpa when he is the mea in question).
By Sunday we were all congratulating ourselves on ‘how far we’d come’, though of course the incident showed there was always the need to be vigilant and reinforce the message. The problem is that it was all at the level of the superficial – what is spoken in public – not what is felt but only spoken in private.
It came home to me when 3 mates that I know to be decent and compassionate blokes, were all dismissive of the whole issue. Two are migrants and commented that far worse things were said to them throughout their school years, and they just learned to turn the other cheek. When I asked how they would respond to the same comments today, they agreed they would “knock their blocks off”. It is just not something that they continue to encounter in their adult life today.
And there is the first rub – racism or any derogatory sleight is a slippery concept because much of the hurt depends on the background of the recipient – not the intent of the speaker (be it a 13YO or Club President/media magnate). We all know that in our day to day lives, some people really ‘push our buttons’ because they touch our childhood wounds.
I could turn my back on being called an ‘ape’ – because it is quite obviously ridiculous. But I was not labelled as sub-human growing up, and have not strived all my life to prove myself as a role model citizen and athlete.
I could take it because it’s ridiculous. Goodes quite obviously couldn’t and shouldn’t – because it’s so bloody unfair.
My mates could see this, but they still weren’t convinced. And this is where I started to agree with them. It is very hard to have a serious debate about the politics of disadvantage, without being labelled as a racist or apologist for the status quo.
Witness #1: Matthew Rendell. His attempt to have a serious debate within his club and the AFL about the underlying reasons for the increased reluctance to draft new indigenous players (only 3 in the current draft – down from 25% a few years ago) got him vilified and sacked.
My belief is that most Australians have an instinctive belief in the fair go. They know that aboriginal people were brutalised and massacred in our colonial history, and that well-intentioned but misguided programs of kidnapping and forced assimilation had disastrous consequences up to recent times.
We feel a shame for that history and we want to put it right. But our instinct is that this requires a hand-up not a hand-out. There is a deep resentment at welfare dependence, and the culture of complaint/entitlement that creates headlines for some indigenous activists. My belief is that media shapes negative perceptions by its own ‘dog whistle’ recognition that sensible public policy debates create little interest. Land rights claims over the CBD, or patronage scandals do.
What has all that got to do with racist taunts over a boundary fence, or pub banter repeated on breakfast radio? The sense that however ridiculous or unfair it could partly be seen as ‘payback’ for tokenism and counter-productive political correctness.
I’ll put my hand up and say that I think the ‘welcome to country’ ritual invites ridicule by its constant repetition, rather than reinforcing any real sense of occasion or meaning. I like the Indigenous Round because I love the history of sport and it prompts so many memories of great players and achievements. But I have some sympathy with a mate who says a Migrants Round or a Back Pockets Round would also give us all a lot of memories of under-recognised past greats.
Our politics is so debased that sport is often the setting and forum for our public policy debates. So it needs to be an open and honest debate not a tokenistic one. The more discontents are left to mutter in school yards and front bars, the more likely they are to bubble up in the incoherent rants of 13yo’s and media ‘celebrities’.
When I searched for common ground between myself and my 3 mates, King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech came to mind. All of us would hope that our “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Broadly put ‘character’ and the role of family, culture and society in shaping it are at the heart of many of our social concerns – be it drugs, crime or the risk/return on investing in a young footballer. They are not uniquely indigenous issues as many white families can attest, but prevalence focusses concern about these problems.
That is why it is both so unfair and so right that Adam Goodes is at the centre of this debate. He is my favorite footballer of the last decade, and why the 2012 Almanac will always be my favorite (until we get NicNait on the cover). Goodes has most often been my Eagles nemesis over that period, but I have always been awestruck at his skills, smarts and athleticism.
To me he will always be like James Brown: “the hardest working man in football”.
No one else could so rightly point to the absurdity of those taunts when applied to him. But because they are unfairly targeted we can’t ignore that there are real underlying issues we need to debate and not ignore as inappropriate or ‘racist’.
Above all I want to enjoy more breathtaking performances like Friday night’s, so I hope that Goode’s role as a cultural lightning rod does not diminish his on-field brilliance.