Almanac Indigenous Football – The power of language: by Roy Hay

The power of language


By Roy Hay


The power of language to distort and obfuscate is enormous. The Australian Football League has issued what it considers to be an unreserved apology for not doing enough to defend Adam Goodes from the storm of abuse that drove him from the game. I have not seen either of the films/documentaries but I have read the full AFL apology, and I want to concentrate on two sentences that need unpacking.


The treatment of Adam challenges us, and our right to be considered Australia’s Indigenous football code. Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football. The game did not do enough to stand with him, and call it out.[1]


The phrase ‘Our right to be considered Australia’s Indigenous code’ neatly aligns two very different meanings of ‘Indigenous’—one being a code unique to Australia, the other a game of the Indigenous people of Australia. They are presented as one idea though they are completely different as the history of the code repeatedly demonstrates. Though Indigenous people have been playing the game since the late nineteenth century, they did not invent it and were excluded from participation at the top level by the gatekeepers of the game and the people who were charged with protecting them in the missions and stations around the periphery to Victoria, in which they were supposed to be confined.


Then there is the implicit claim that the AFL is the game and it really is the game that is to blame. It was the AFL and its leadership that did not do enough to stand by Adam Goodes and still it hides behind ‘the game’ it claims to administer and promote. It and its predecessors have been doing this since 1908, when the occasion suited. In the opening chapter of my new book Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere I mention an episode that year when the Victorian Football League celebrated the invented 50th anniversary of the game:


In July 1908 the Victorian Football League (VFL) held a self-congratulatory meeting at its new premises in Collins Street, Melbourne. The President, Alexander McCracken, opened proceedings with the claim that ‘the League could safely be described as one of the most successful athletic associations ever formed. It had come through without a blemish, so far as he knew, and it had brought football to the highest status’. Other members of the committee echoed his remarks.


However, the first item of business showed just how narrow the vision of the League was when it turned down a request from the secretary of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Football Club to discuss playing matches against good metropolitan teams. The bias against Aboriginal players is evident in the fact that only one Indigenous player has been traced playing for a top senior club in a competitive match in Victoria in the nineteenth century.


Then when it comes to the apology notice how the emphasis is shifted to the game, not the AFL. Many—‘in the game’—on the terraces, in letters to the press and elsewhere ignored the behaviour of those who booed Adam Goodes or tried to downplay it by saying that other Indigenous players were not treated in similar fashion. Some of the comments following Daniel Cherny’s article in the Age yesterday take that line.[2]


These comments were met by criticism from others who pointed out that the treatment of Adam Goodes reflected very closely the experience of a host of current and recently retired Indigenous players. Only this time it was front and centre involving a high profile player in the latter stages of a stellar career.


Ms Hosch, an AFL spokesperson, said the apology ‘doesn’t change what Adam went through’ but argued it was a sincere apology ‘rather than reputation management’.[3]I have no doubt the apology was fully considered and argued about by the AFL and its constituent clubs before being issued and I hope that it is sincere and has practical consequences for the future of Indigenous players in the game, but it is one of the most subtle and contrived pieces of image management at which the AFL is probably the best in the business.


I haven’t mentioned their claims elsewhere in the apology that the game derives from marngrook, something for which there is no credible evidence as my book tries to make clear.



[1]        Sarah Black, AFL, clubs unreservedly apologise to Goodes for not ‘standing with him’, 7 June 2019,


[2]       Daniel Cherny, ‘Side by side they watch together: McGuire fronts Pies over Goodes film’, Age, 10 June 2019, p. 48;


[3]       ‘AFL apologises unreservedly for failures over racism faced by Adam Goodes’


To read more from Roy Hay click HERE



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  1. Sean Seeliger says

    I TOTALLY DISAGREE with your assumption that because I LOVE Cyril, ALL Rioli’s, Buddy Franklin, Michael O’Loughlin, Gavin Wanganeen, Barry Cable, the Burgoyne and Krakour brothers and Eddie Betts but really don’t like Adam Goodes means I am rascist. I didnt boo him but I understand why people did.
    He staged for frees ( ie. Matty Lloyd style ) , he made things political once he became Australian of the Year…and for alot of people I speak to about this, they agree that at one point they loved him, loved his football, think he was a gun but things changed. That’s not rascism – nor are most people I know racists. Aussies just dont tolerate idiots….

    Note also I barrack for Collingwood and our occasional buffoon of a PRESIDENT made a muppet of himself with his APE comments about GOODES again ( yep he is great for the PIES but he also needs to watch his trap ) . This was Rascist and insensitive but again not what the majority of Australians who, please, please dont think need to be educated because a few people say the wrong thing.

    Over and out. For now.

  2. The AFL is just one competition within the sport – it is not THE game – and their constant, subtle attempts at appropriating the game are a great annoyance.

    I am looking forward to reading your new book, Roy.
    It will be interesting to see what Martin Flanagan thinks of it.

  3. Dear Sean

    The two paragraphs near the end where I discuss some of the reactions were aimed at mentioning the range of views expressed. I agree that some people distinguished very clearly between their behaviour towards Adam Goodes and towards other Indigenous players, but I suspect you and they may have been in a minority in a noisy majority but I could be wrong. I don’t know if anyone has done any serious research on this topic. Like you I still believe that the majority of our fellow Australians are not racist and the more they know about the wonderful mixture of people who make up this country the less discriminatory they become.

    Thanks Smokie. I hope Martin will read it too and look forward very much to talking to him about it. I went back earlier tonight to an email he sent me several years ago which I treasure for its criticism and good humour. I wish I could write with the level of understanding he has shown and his insight into the human character. If you do get a chance to read the book, please let me know what you think of it..

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