Lumumba, Goodes and “A Loss to the Game”

The airing of Fair Game, a documentary about former Collingwood and Melbourne flanker Heritier Lumumba and his experiences of racism within the AFL, has raised many issues. It got me thinking about the amount of non-Anglo-Celtic players who become disengaged from the system upon retirement. Lumumba is unlikely to enter the big AFL tent again, and because of this he is now considered “a loss to the game”, to use a popular footy-media term.


This phrase, when used in this context, is essentially politically correct spin – it’s a shiny, inoffensive way of saying, ‘We did our best to make him an outsider and he’s just taken us up on it’. It is so often used to brush away the context surrounding a player’s exit – ‘Ah well, he’s a great loss to the game, what’s next on the agenda?’.


Not to mention the fact that Lumumba’s documentary is an incredibly important contribution to the game; it is The AFL that he is no longer a part of.


Lumumba is far from the first player of colour to remove himself from the AFL system upon retirement. I believe we can both support and be saddened by these players’ decisions to distance themselves from said system.


Since his retirement at the end of the 2015 season, I have “mourned” the “loss” of Adam Goodes.


It can be difficult to discuss racial issues without dipping into the grab-bag of overly earnest and potentially condescending language. Adam Goodes is a man of strength and conviction. He makes his own decisions. When we use words like “mourn” and “loss” we do so in relation to his football career – to “mourn” the “loss” of a 37-year-old man with what is hopefully a long life ahead of him would be preposterous. But it is an emotional issue, and this is emotional language.


Goodes’ career is one that I was lucky to follow basically from start to finish. If Wayne Carey waddled like a duck then Adam Goodes roamed the field like a gazelle, his long legs (socks always worn impeccably high) affording him vast strides that seemed to swallow up the distance between him and the goals. Too tall to be your average midfielder, too useful to be a stay-at-home key position player, Goodes instead chose to do it all. He retired with more honours than an army General, and a pretty handy trophy that he won in Canberra in 2014.


But let’s not mince words; he also retired a pariah.


He was bruised, battered and ultimately ostracised for standing up for his ancestry and his people. Yes, he was also defended, guarded and lauded by many, but to say that he was successfully shielded from the worst aspects of white Australian culture would be myopic and would only serve to further mask and dispel the issues that he cares about.


The booing at Swans games became reminiscent of the incessant hum of the Vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup. High profile commentators pilloried him in column inches and radio breaks. He took mid-season leave in his final year, and played his final games from within the eye of the storm.


Goodes’ skills, smarts and leadership qualities would make him a brilliant coach (assistant or senior) of any AFL side. His advocacy of Indigenous issues would make him a valuable ambassador. His knowledge of the game and his external education would make him a valuable board member or administrator. It’s not like these are roles that he is not suited to.


One would have to assume that he has been offered roles at clubs and the AFL, and while it is surely his decision not to enter coaching or administration, this is no less lamentable a fact. Goodes is exactly the type of person that the AFL supposedly works overtime to keep in the system, to make use of, to venerate – and they have “lost” him.


Adam Goodes now works with Indigenous youth via the GO Foundation that he founded with his old teammate Michael O’Loughlin. That he devotes his time and energy to this cause is the mark of a man who lives for his people and the hope of brighter times for Indigenous Australians. However, the AFL must also analyse, recognise and take responsibility for the events that forced him away.


Goodes and others like him deserve to remain the leaders, idols and heroes that they were on the field once they walk off it for the final time. Instead the AFL and its commentators offer them, at best, martyrdom.


If the AFL, its systems and its clubs keep offering the barbed olive branch of exclusion, ostracism and isolation to people like Heritier Lumumba and Adam Goodes then they will continue to “lose” them. These two men will positively influence many lives, and we can’t complain that they’re not doing it from within the AFL – but neither can we sit still and lazily mark them down as “a loss to the game”.

About Arlo Langham

Writer / Rambler. Son of the 'Scray.


  1. Well said Arlo.
    It’s a stain on our national sport that the AFL was unable to reign in the unprecedented (mainly) racially charged scorn directed at Adam Goodes. No player in VFL/AFL history was or has ever been subjected to such abuse. I hear the crap that Carey & Buckley copped booing too, but on a scale of 1 to 10, the booing they copped was a 1 while the booing and hateful abuse of Goodes was off the charts.

    Once Lumumba was a called a ‘chimp’….the very first time…..the person responsible should have been harshly dealt including named & shamed.

    Good on him for having the courage to speak out.

  2. Yep, agree entirely Arlo. That Collingwood did nothing to address the issues around Lumumba’s departure at the time and appear to have no interest in doing so now. It’s pathetic (imo), really. And to have Gillon on the radio saying the AFL handles race well… well. I found the handling of the Matt Rendell situation particularly instructive – Rendell was (extremely clumsily) honest about an issue that was affecting his recruiting strategy at Adelaide and presumably other AFL clubs too. The falling share of Indigenous players at clubs over the last few years seems to confirm this. However, rather than do anything substantive to address the underlying issue they just had him sacked – appearance over substance every time.

  3. Thanks Arlo. Many points made here.

    And, yes, there is certainly a difference between the game and the AFL.

  4. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi Arlo, well said and written. I am glad that Adam and now Heritier were able to stand up and be heard, by the documentary for Heritier and by his ongoing work for Adam. I wish them well. Thank you for the thoughts and analysis.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nicely written Arlo. Great first piece, poignant and heartfelt. Change is happening, gradually, still a long way to go. Buckley’s response to the lack of ’emotional intelligence’ comment reeked of arrogance.
    Good on Heritier for speaking his truth.

  6. Very good Arlo. The treatment of Adam Goodes is horrific. It is not just the AFL that sees sportsmen of non Anglo,and/or Celtic backgrounds disengaged upon retirement. What sports have treated their indigenous athletes well post career?

    There’s been some very fine indigenous boxers, but apart from Tony Mundine, who fared well post retirement ? Ditto indigenous rugby players. I’m cognisant Mal Meninga has done well post career, but what about those in the union field?

    I did a posting back in May of the paucity of indigenous first class cricketers in Australia. Here is a sport that has done very little for the original Australians.The sad demise of Eddie Gilbert highlights this.

    It’s important to remember: White Australia has a Black History.


  7. Chris Bracher says

    Nailed it Arlo.

  8. Keiran Croker says

    Great article Arlo. Points well made.

    Goodesy is doing some great things in the areas that he is passionate about. The GO Foundation has an active relationship with the Sydney Swans and share some staff. My hope is that Adam will be invited on to the Swans Board. Time will tell on that one. However, whatever he does I agree with you that he is a strong man who will chart his own course.

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