A lot happened in the lead up to the Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round. Carlton Football Club apologised for its discrimination against Sir Doug Nicholls. Richmond Football Club promoted the role of its Laguntas Program and Korin Gamadji Institute. The AFL showed a series of short videos on the life of Sir Doug Nicholls. Each club rolled out its latest Indigenous Round jumper. There seemed to be a great buy into the round from many of the Aboriginal footballers within the AFL. On a different front, Dr.Sean Gorman released his book that investigated the impact and success of the AFL’s Rule 35 against discrimination. But it was also largely missing Adam Goodes. And, I found myself missing a Goodes’ moment: a moment when the feel-good narrative of being an Aboriginal footballer could be somehow disrupted, interrupted and made a little more complex. A moment that could have been like Johnathan Thurstan’s shout out to Aurukun State School at the end of the NRL State of Origin game.
Little angers the AFL off more than an infringement of their ‘intellectual property’. And so, regarding some racist posts which used AFL imagery (or, only the name of Goodes?) on that venerable institution, Facebook, Patrick Keane (AFL Spokesman) said, “If you are trying to use AFL [intellectual property] in this way it is utterly unacceptable and we will not tolerate it.” And, “we are not going to allow people to be vilified.” Oh the irony: Adam Goodes was vilified for months on end throughout 2014 and 2015 and the AFL didn’t act belligerently and unequivocally. Instead, it tried to play a role of gentle appeasement, trying calmly (and fruitlessly) to bring the racist abusers back into the warm and cuddly environment that is being a support of ‘AFL’ (that thing so often considered synonymous with Australian rules football).
Indeed, the sight of a black man refusing to be dictated to about how he should be behave is so offensive to some, that even his image provoke condemnation. Even at the Dreamtime at the G game. Goodes’ image was subject to boo-ing by some recalcitrant who perhaps now is the subject of a police investigation after other fans reported his behaviour. This isn’t the good ol quality of being a bit of a larrikan and aving a bit of a joke ya know whatimean. Such behaviour is extreme boganism based on a desire to get attention and to offend as many as possible. Oh yes, and its racist.
Goodes’ gesture, his act of performing a dance after kicking a goal against Carlton in 2015 has become an iconic moment in Australian sport. More please. Footballer as activist: through speaking with his body. Goodes: eloquent in body and language. Adam Briggs, rapper raps assertively: “I am Adam Goodes and Adam should be applauded when he stands up”. Briggs places Goodes in the realm of other great Aboriginal athletes and footballers: Wanganeen (of ’93), Cathy Freeman, Lionel Rose amongst them. Filmmaker, Marianne Latham, remixed Briggs’ song with footage of Goodes’ dance (below). (Briggs’ lyrics are at the bottom of this post.) Elsewhere, Ellen van Neerven wrote this poem, published in Overland:
A stadium can hold the most sound
drowning out the bora ring
mudding the lines we needed to know
where we’re going
now it’s a clusterfuck to get the train home
flip up seats and overflowing beer
the rude odour of tomato sauce
and the black faces they never show on TV
the team with the most blackfullas
they don’t want to win
the commentator’s curse
the tiddling fear
of invisible spears
we can’t score goals
on this sacred land
celebrated as animals
GI doing the goanna, yeah
but not people
with military intelligence
you don’t want us protecting
our land like the Maori
– that means it was our land to protect
we don’t need
a haka of whitefullas
just let us resist.*
(*my paragraph breaks)
Overland, 220, Spring 2015.
The footy field had become a safe space in which ‘Aboriginal Australia’ could be appreciated and celebrated. Witness the feel good occasions of the Indigenous Round and the Dreamtime a the G. Here Aboriginality is sought to be neatly packaged up and articulated in a way that can be easily consumed and enjoyed by the broadest possible cross-section of fans. The Dreamtime at the G game itself is the idea of ‘ideas man’ Kevin Sheedy: a premiership player at Richmond and a three-time premiership coach at Essendon. Sheedy is also generally credited with popularising the recruitment of Aboriginal players to AFL clubs. His Essendon teams of the 1990s, for example, featured players such as Michael Long, Derek Kickett, Gavin Wanganeen, Che Cockatoo-Collins amongst others. In talking about his experience in recruiting and Aboriginal-Australia engagement Sheedy has said (I paraphrase), talking with Aboriginal Australians is just like talking with anyone else from another country – you start by asking questions’.
This comment is both revealing and contentious. The comment speaks of the gap (or chasm?) between Aboriginal Australia and colonialist Australia, the reality of the difference amongst Aboriginal identity and also a naivety on Sheedy’s part in which he didn’t acknowledge that it is the foreigness he had inherited that was a part of this gap. So typically, it is the Aboriginal party that has to do the explaining, rather than the person speaking from white privilege – such as Kevin Sheedy, Eddy McGuire or Sandy Roberts (he of ‘look at this boy go’ in reference to Michael Long in the 1993 Grand Final), to name a few.
The 1990s became a decade in which an increasing number of Aboriginal players became lauded for their ‘magic’, but also criticised for being inconsistent – from game to game and within games – lazy and lacking hunger. Fans of clubs (such as Essendon) brought Aboriginal flags to games in support of their star players such as Michael Long and Derek Kickett and Gavin Wanganeen, while coaches (such as Mick Malthouse) tolerated racist abuse and terms being used in their teams as well as against other players. Oh Grumpy Mick: he of the coach of the Blues which saw the departure of Eddie Betts and Chris Yarran: of the latter whom he said, ‘has to be ridden hard’. Never mind Yarran is an adult. Never mind that he is suffering a mental illness.
Nicky Winmar’s gesture at Victoria Park and Michael Long’s calling out of racist abuse hurled at him by Damien Monkhorst became iconic moments in rejecting the normalcy of racism. The footy establishment reacted awkwardly: in the case of Winmar’s gesture, Wayne Ludbey’s image was given little initial importance by his editors. Ross Oakley, chairman of the AFL, refused to let Long speak at a press conference when apparently the two parties involved had ‘settled their differences’. Winmar and Long made others uncomfortable: they showed others their racism was demeaning, hurtful and real. For perhaps a decade after their actions though, the AFL slipped into a complacency, content that they had stamped out racism and were a progressive organisation, championing the cause of Indigenous Australia. Perhaps all this chest-beating invites doubts and questions about their integrity.
Adam Goodes stood up to girl who had racially abused him and then for a year or more he was booed almost into silence. His dance, after scoring a goal in Sydney, though, once more turned the AFL field into a space of resistance and bodily theatre. Goodes’s gesture became an incredibly difficult gesture to comprehend and caused an explosion of contempt and debate amongst footy fans. Dermott Brereton a serial racist abuser of the 1980s and 1990s told Goodes that he should look at his own actions, rather than condemn the abusers. Lewis Jetta would later recreate Goodes’s gesture when playing in Perth and indicate his support for him. A year on, its meanings are still being read and re-read by Briggs, van Neerven and Latham and others, no doubt.
And so, another Dreamtime at the G has passed. And perhaps some of us are all feeling a little better about ourselves for having celebrated ‘indigenous culture’ and Aboriginal footballers. Not me racist much. Yet, even in the throes of self-congratulation there has been a report on racist abuse at the Dreamtime game. Oh yeah, and please don’t anyone mention suicide rates in Aboriginal communities. For all the ownership taken by current Aboriginal players, and the pride of these players in educating other players and fans about this week, Adam Goodes absence was the veritable elephant in the stadium, on websites or on the radio. The AFL failed to respond adequately for weeks and months and he was booed out of the game. The AFL is bending over backwards to make up for lost-ground, and so they should. Yet, their integrity will once more be questioned when another Goodes moment presents itself and a player, refuses to toe the line and present a simplistic, comforting and feel good story about being Aboriginal. At the conclusion of the NRL’s State of Origin game, Thurstans showed that one can be a footballer, celebrate being Aboriginal and also not shy away from problems at hand. The AFL chose a strict policy of not mentioning their failure to handle the abuse of Goodes in 2015. Instead, the Dreamtime at the G and other celebrations, continued to perpetuate glorified visions of Aboriginal Australians as footballing noble savages.
I’m Fitzroy where the stars be
I’m Wanganeen in ’93
I’m Mundine, I’m Cathy Free-
Man, that fire inside-a-me
I’m Adam Goodes, and Adam should
Be applauded when he stand up
You can look to us when that time stop
I’m Patty Mills with the last shot
[Verse 2: Briggs]
I’m Doug Nicholls, I’m Jimmy Little
With a royal telephone
I’m the world champ in ’68
Boy I’m Lionel Rose
I’m William Cooper, I take a stand
When no one even knows
I’m the walk off, I’m the sound of
The children coming home
[Verse 3: Briggs]
Let me take it home, I’m Rumba
I’m the sand hills on Cummera
I’m Les Briggs, I’m Paul Briggs
I’m Uncle Ringo with all them kids
Im Uncle Buddy, everybody loves me
Ain’t none below, ain’t none above me
Im the carvings outta every scar tree
I’m those flats that birthed Archie
Now Mr Abbott, think about it
Me and you we feel the same
That might sound strange, I’m just sayin’
We both unsettled when the boats came
You can do it too