COMMENT: Australia Day is a time not just to celebrate our country, but also to think about what values are most important for our diverse nation.
Australia Day and its associated politics have rarely had an impact in the world of AFL, mainly due to the timing of our national day.
But three years ago on this day, an active AFL player was named as Australian Of The Year, a national honour beyond any other in this country. Adam Goodes was a twice Brownlow Medallist who had become an inspiration for not just his team or for the game, but for his people.
However, instead of celebrating the rise of a superb indigenous footballer to become an inspirational national figure, Goodes’ appointment to the role was immediately questioned by those who believed it was merely a political decision.
Nine months earlier, Goodes had been at the centre of a racial flashpoint, when he pointed out a supporter in the crowd had racially abused him. That supporter turned out to be a 13-year-old girl.
It was monumental as it was the highest-profile incident in a generation of an athlete calling out racism from a crowd. It broke down the notion that there was a barrier between what was said in the stands and what was said out on the field.
For everything that Goodes had achieved in his career, it was to prove a defining moment. The reaction in the community was polarising. There were plenty who saw it as a watershed moment for the battle against racism in sport, but there were also plenty who felt that the 13-year-old girl was the real victim.
That moment at the MCG set off a chain of events which on one hand would see Goodes lauded as a hero worthy of being awarded Australian of the Year, and on the other hand, hounded from the game he loved by a chorus of boos from grounds around Australia.
For while Goodes had called out racism from the crowd, many of that crowd were responding by telling him that he and his views on how they should behave did not belong in their game.
A lot of disconcerting things have happened in AFL over the past five years, but in my opinion, nothing has come close to the treatment of Adam Goodes in his final year as a player.
While those who boo-ed insisted that it was because ‘he was a flog’ not because he was black, much of their dislike of him came from his actions as a proud indigenous man, rather than as a footballer.
For those of us who saw the abuse for what it was, bullying at best and blatant racism at worst, it was a stark reminder that for all the steps that had been made since Nicky Winmar stood proudly pointing to his black skin in front of a feral crowd at Victoria Park, that there was a long, long way to go.
I’m not black, so I can’t tell you what it was like for Winmar to stand and confront those who abused him for who he is, or how hard it was for Goodes to call out racism when he saw it during a game.
I do know that racism is about much more than that which is spoken, but in how we live as a nation. Indigenous people in this country are the most disadvantaged group in every clear indicator of wellbeing, especially health and education.
That’s not a political statement, it’s a reality which we are yet to confront as a nation.
How does the treatment of Goodes then relate to that? For me, as an Australian who values the concept of a fair go, the impact is two-fold.
The first is not about the impact it had on Goodes, but on every Aboriginal kid in Australia who saw the way their hero was treated when he stood up to racism.
If an Australian of the Year is boo-ed from the game, what hope a kid who just wants to play footy or go about his life being judged on his character rather than his colour.
The second is the loss of Goodes to the game, something which hopefully is temporary.
Goodes has taken a massive step out of the spotlight in the past 18 months, and he’s owed some time to himself after a brilliant career.
The past two years has seen a string of indigenous players exit the AFL prematurely, all no doubt for a variety of different reasons.
Has the manner of Goodes’ exit and the fact the AFL is now without his leadership on issues facing indigenous players, impacted some of these decisions to walk away?
Only the players themselves know, but if the treatment of Goodes is a factor in any way, it’s a great example of why the AFL should have acted more quickly to prevent Goodes departing the game under such a cloud.
How does this all relate back to Australia Day? Well, as mentioned, the ‘fair go’ sits at the heart of our values as a nation.
In the past 12 months, we have been asked to give a couple of significant figures within the game, namely Garry Lyon and James Hird, a ‘fair go’ after they endured their own personal issues.
That’s fair enough, but surely that also extends to the AFL community reaching out to a man who had the honour of being named Australian of the Year.
Goodes was as good a footballer as we have seen. He was strong, athletic, spectacular and brave. He fulfilled every ounce of his potential in his 372 games.
But while his achievements are many, his impact on the game can not be measured in kicks, handpasses, goals and Brownlow votes. He is a giant of the sport and at a time where there is a dearth of true leadership, the AFL needs him.