The Blackness of the Game: After Reading Klugman and Osmond’s, Black and Proud
Sport is a social space in which racism can be both perpetuated and combated. Sport, as a part of mainstream society, is implicated in debates and discourses on racism at all of its levels. From the amateur level, to that of the super-well paid professional level. Coaches, players, recruiters, administrators, managers can either help to curb racism or can further entrench it in a sports culture. Sport in Australia has long been intricately intertwined with discourses on race and the perceptions of the ‘Aboriginal other’. The venerated but troubled founder of the game of Australian rules, Tom Wills, spent much of his youth in the western districts of Victoria and learned to speak a local aboriginal language. He also formed a team of black cricketers to play at the MCG (de Moore 2011, pp.186-187). For so long Aboriginal footballers have been at once lauded for their skill, and at the same time, racially abused and considered to lack ticker and commitment.
In the 19th century crowds flocked to see aboriginal cricketers play both out of curiosity at their skills and whether or not they practiced the etiquette of civilized society. A hundred years or so later, a former president of Collingwood, would make a statement that invoked such prejudices. Allan McAlister remarked, not longer after the Winmar-led racism debate of the early 1990s, ‘as long as they [Indigenous Australians] conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them’ (Klugman and Osmond 2013, p.161). In the 19th century, crowds would flock to public events in which aboriginal Australians would show off their physical skills and athleticism.
Victoria Park, late 90s
The AFL promotes itself as a game ‘for all’. Such a slogan can’t be taken for granted. This ‘all’ is indeed splintered, fractured and plural. This is felt in the clear difference between the crowds that attend A-League football games and AFL. One overhears a broad variety of languages, one sees a great variety of faces and ages. The Asian Cup also brought out a different set of crowd dynamics and Australian society compared to that of an AFL crowd. Aussie Rules, the AFL argues, is a game ‘for all’ and ‘Australia’s game’. And thus the AFL has sought to show that it is an open sport – regardless of the gender, race, religion or social background of the player, spectator, participant.
As part of a recent campaign, the AFL has collaborated with Australia Post and presented some of its players standing behind David Zaharakis while he encourages people to ‘bring a plate, because we all have a story to tell’. Gourmet food, footy endorsement: surely this has Australia covered. The video can be found here: Taste of Harmony. The AFL supports this initiative along with the Commonwealth Bank, Target and others. (Curiously the players are wearing the expressions as if they are attending a funeral, rather than ‘celebrating workplace cultural diversity.)
During the 1990s, however, the AFL was on the back foot; on the defensive. It was only in 1995 that the AFL’s magazine, The Record, had a cover that explicitly declared the end to tolerating racism (Klugman and Osmond 2013, p.245). The AFL’s defensive attitude towards racism is made explicit in Klugman and Osmond’s definitive book on a defining moment in Australian rules footy and sport. The book shows how the AFL and much of the media were unwilling to acknowledge the racism that was pervasive throughout the game’s culture. This book documents not only the legendary stances of Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar, but also that of the two photographers who captured the image of Winmar pointing to his sternum with his left middle finger. Without the efforts of Wayne Ludbey and John Feder, Winmar’s defiant, confrontational, but, most importantly dignified and proud act would have been easily forgotten and turned into so much myth. Moreover, it was the proximity of Wayne Ludbey to Winmar, that allowed him to verify Winmar’s words, ‘I’m black and I’m proud to be black’ (Klugman and Osmond 2013, p.142).
Aussie rules culture was not conducive for speaking up against racism. The AFL administrators were doing their best to deny its presence and relevance. Earlier in the season, as Klugman and Osmond point out, Michael Long had been suspended for three weeks for striking John Worsfold. It was implied, but not stated literally, that Long had been racially abused, and, that Long’s actions were in response to racist abuse. Worsfold, West Coast legend, former captain and coach, has denied the accusations. Racist abuse was regarded as little more than sledging, gamesmanship and that players who couldn’t handle it, should harden up. Players such as Collingwood’s legendary premiership captain, Tony Shaw, and Hawthorn’s brilliant and current commentator, Dermott Brereton have admitted to racist abuse – saying they did so in order to put aboriginal players off their game.
This is stopping short of admitting to being racist, of course. After the Long-Monkhorst incident also of 1993, Damien Monkhorst not only didn’t unequivocally apologise, he also didn’t come to terms with what the fuss was about. See Waleed Aly’s excellent article regarding Michael Long. Klugman and Osmond also point out that St.Kilda prevented Winmar and McAdam of speaking publicly about the Victoria Park incident. This not only caused some confusion about Winmar’s intent, but, also failed to give Winmar and McAdam the privileged position they should have held in the debate in the immediate aftermath.
The mythology of Winmar, ‘After Botticelli’, by Jim Pavlidis
Winmar’s gesture has become part of the mythology of Australian popular culture. It is repeated in art works, graphic works and by youth, who make it to state their pride in who they are (some of these are included in Klugman and Osmond’s book). Jim Pavlidis’s image of Winmar as Venus is one while Andrew Dyson’s image asserts the precarity with which Winmar made his gesture. The gesture was made with the middle finger – a gesture that could have so easily been provocative and rude gesture to the crowd. But, instead Winmar points the finger at his own skin, lays claim on who he is.
I feel that it is Winmar saying, ‘it is myself who shall define who I am. It is my skill as a footballer that you shall know me. And by the way, I’m black and I’m proud.’ He blew kisses after making the gesture, but the photos of this act of playful taunting, taken by Ludbey, weren’t published. Instead, we have the image of Winmar, ramrod straight back; chin slightly jutting forward; a steely gaze, perhaps eyeballing an unfortunate member of the Victoria Park rabble. Michael Gordon’s article on the photographs and incident can be found here.
Beautiful Victoria Park
Nowadays, Victoria Park is a well-maintained public park that incorporates the history of the ground and provides public space – i.e. BBQ area. The turf is well-maintained. There are signs on the terraces on the southern wing which record some of the dramatic events of Victoria Park and Collingwood’s history. Strangely, there is no mention of the Winmar incident. There is a haunting soundscape in one of the alleys beneath the stands at the western end. There are no racist taunts included. This relatively sanitized remembering of Victoria Park in part marks the importance of the book. Indeed, Victoria Park isn’t the only place of racist abuse, but it is the site of its most significant rebuttal.
The book doesn’t end on a happy note. And nor could it. The 2013 season was marred by racist abuse of Adam Goodes. This time, Goodes stopped his participation in the game and indicated the person who had abused him. Goodes, the following day, didn’t exonerate the person who made the comments by virtue of her young age, but, nor did he wish to further victimize her. Goodes was at pains to stress that her comments were racist, abusive and hurtful. The AFL was further embarrassed by the comments of Collingwood president, Eddie McGuire, on Triple M radio somehow linking Goodes to the promotion of the recently released King Kong film. In a conversation with former Manchester United player, Rio Ferdinand, Goodes didn’t hide the hurt he felt at the abuse, stating the length of time it was taking to deal with and the hurt he felt on behalf of his family.
The story of racism in Australia is not something that can be reduced to happy to stories of everyone sitting around together and sharing a nice meal. It is one that involves the defiant acts of brave individuals: Winmar, McAdam, Long, Goodes. And those who preserve their acts through photography and not bowing to editors who seek to emasculate a story’s controversy. Footy for too long has been a home to racist abuse and abuse of all other kinds. Each supporter, each player, each journalist administrator coach manager is responsible for preventing it. Klugman and Osmond’s book not only provides an insightful trajectory of the photograph and Winmar’s act, but, also on the context of his act. That is, how, the relative abhorrence of racist abuse was so normal, so prevalent and so accepted back in the 90s.
Beautiful photo, but the wrong finger
Klugman and Osmond reiterate the slow pace of change:
The image of Winmar pointing with pride to his dark skin continues to be shown over and over again, turning up in newspapers, posters, and street art. Its power lies not only in the effect it had, but in its compelling call for change that is yet to come. The horrid shouts of a few deluded fans will be quickly dealt with. But damaging assumptions of inferiority remain. (see The Ugly Game of Enlightened Racism, The Age, April 17, 2013)
Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo, New South Books, 2013.
Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: First Wild Man of Australian Sport, Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2011.
*Thanks to Matthew Klugman for additional comments and to Jim Pavlidis