A grey backdrop to the colour picture

It’s human nature that most of us prefer to glean easy understanding of an issue via an evocative visual rather labouring through an essay. Never more so than the time poor digital age, when anything beyond 140 characters is considered a long read.

Just as the Nicky Winmar guernsey lifting demonstration continues to be venerated as a seminal moment in the history of Indigenous relations, there’s a fair chance the image of Goodes pointing his finger at ‘the face of racism’ will be used to promote Indigenous Round in years to come.  And perhaps so will Ed’s big red head on a chopping block.

But does the supposed significance of these pictures really make lasting headway into the headspace of the average Australian? And have we learnt anything in the 20 years since Winmar?

I’d contend yes and no.

Romanticised as footy’s version of the iconic black power salute (the real story is less potent), Winmar’s supposed watershed moment escaped Collingwood ruckman Damian Monkhorst and president Allan McAllister just two years later.  At least the Michael Long shemozzle precipitated a real concerted effort to effect change in attitudes, despite lacking the everlasting poster pic.

In the intervening years, with every two steps forward football (and society) has generally taken one step back.

Amid ‘apegate’ the immediate Twitterversal condemnation corralled a moral vanguard not so apparent in the mid 1990’s.  Indeed, that crowds and players have become largely self-regulating indicate a slow march towards enlightenment (whether this is quite the case across country and suburban leagues is another matter). Of course, where microphones and cameras of every type abound, launching into a racist tirade demands multiple forms of ignorance.

Coincidental to the Long example, just as Adam Goodes built a bridge, a Collingwood president yet again stumbled into a word hole that with minimal digging became a giant crater. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘sorry’ may have been decades overdue but Indigenous communities lauded the words they’d been aching to hear. It’s baffling how educated leaders amongst us are still as prone to ‘mentioning the war’ – saying words that make our ears ache with embarrassment.

However, casting one’s mind back to the suburban terraces of yore, there is no doubt a sizeable shift in behavioural standards has taken place. Whether zero tolerance of racist comments, malicious or unintended, has actually made a real difference to the lot of marginalized groups in Australian society is debateable. Furthermore, are today’s bigots merely better trained to keep their thoughts under their metaphorical white pointy hats?

That said, whilst the Winmar and Goodes images serve as timely reminders that the battle is far from won, the truth has required some bending to fit the media’s desired narrative. In the 13 year old girl’s case, in the cold light of day her horrifyingly insensitive insult was more so a howler of the Bert Newton ‘I like the boy’ variety.  Yet as one experienced TV sports host pronounced, the Goodes incident ‘crystalized racism in footy’.  Really?

Ultimately the incident was handled admirably by those at the heart of the matter via a couple phone calls, contrition and education, rather than a public stoning in Federation Square.  Not so admirable were the countless ‘fat racist bogan’ descriptions of the girl which have not engendered a second thought or a single apology. Maybe one day being judged by one’s size will be deemed as unacceptable as one’s race – even Harry O might ponder that on his high thinking chair.

So pictures sometimes betray reality, just as words can betray one’s true intentions. Actions can also be interpreted various ways. The recent proposal to send an Indigenous team to Ireland, according to former player Kevin Caton, flies in the face of the whole desire not to be badged separately but to be regarded equally. Perhaps it’s time to review the Indigenous Round as well, survey the right people whether they feel it a worthwhile exercise, or a box ticking, veering on exploitative promotion.

In other scenarios, inaction equates to malevolence. Waleed Aly’s typically incisive and poignant article several months ago on Australia’s ‘silent pervasive racism’ is worth noting in the scheme of the comparatively hysterical indignation over a shocking brainfade.

In terms of the voracious posse determined to have Ed burned at the stake, it would be interesting to know how many have done anywhere near as much, if anything, to assist Indigenous people.  Or how many view the surnames Rioli and Kickett (or choose your own Muslim name for that matter) with the same regard on a job or rental application as on an AFL team sheet.

Passive racism has AFL parallels – think draft time and Indigenous talent being tossed in the too-hard basket. As Matt Rendell found, it’s a fraught issue that no one wants to own, let alone talk openly about for fear of offending or dismissal.

It’s easier to paint by numbers, and those who wear their racism on their southern cross tattooed sleeve are the low hanging bananas. The outraged have their pound of flesh and the routine is met with self-congratulatory cheers. Whereas equally appalling, hard to get at racism doesn’t necessarily have an ugly face, a compelling photograph or an excruciating sound bite.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Hey Jeff

    Every molecule in my being says Indigenous round is a good thing. Not only is it a celebration of all things indigenous in australian rules football, it is another soothing layer in the healing process for indigenous and non indigenous australians. The incident last friday night, or the apparent lack of progress since Winmar’s stand, doesn’t detract from its value. For me, the value is the focus on the enriching qualities aboriginal people bring to our game and our society.

  2. daniel flesch says

    Fantastic analysis ,Jeff . thank you . On the Indigenous team for Ireland aspect i can see the argument against separatism , but i first heard this idea mooted in The Age some years ago. The writer (forget who) suggested the side should be captained by “Australia’s foremost black Irishman Michael O’Loughlin.” Actually i think the whole International Rules caper is silly , but the nomination of the captain was funny. Getting back to separatism though – what’s to be made , then , of the Aboriginal Allstars vs. Richmond game earlier this year? Didn’t see it ,but I think it was rated a success. (Rugby League has played an Indigenous Allstars match for a few years now too.)

  3. Thanks Daniel, T Bone.

    In answer to both your comments it would be interesting to know what various Indiginous players and ex players think. Almost always it seems we get the non-Indiginous viewpoint on these initiatives. And I guess that’s where to me the exercise comes across at times patronising – that it’s more about white Australia feeling better about themselves.

    Not so many can put their hand up and say they’ve actively done something (me included). Apparently before Ed’s moment of madness he was at a function aimed at getting Indiginous kids into one of Melbourne’s private schools.

  4. Luke Reynolds says

    Some very good points in this article. I don’t think having seperate indigenous teams at any under age or open level helps. Inclusion does. Including everyone is what football should be all about. But the highlighting of aboriginal players present and past is a great highlight of Indigenous Round and the week leading up to it every year. I love seeing the highlights again of the Krakouer brothers, the Kicketts, Winmar, Leon Davis, O’Loughlin, Goodes, McLeod etc., etc., etc. The Dreamtime at the G game is a brilliant event.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid thing that Pres Ed said. Sadly what he was doing the night before those stupid hasn’t been widely reported.


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