Adam Goodes' booing ordeal is a test of who we are

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Michael Gordon

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Australians unite: 'I stand with Adam Goodes'

Celebrities, athletes, political figures take a stand against racism and unite in support for Adam Goodes. #istandwithadam

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Contests don't get more uneven than the one between Adam Goodes and the baying, booing crowd on match day. His is one of the most recognisable faces in the country. They are anonymous, amorphous, invisible.

His aim is clear: to perform at the highest level in the national game, to call out racism when he is confronted by it, and to be a role model for those who dream of doing the same, especially those of Indigenous heritage. Their motives are a mystery and probably mixed.

His every action is subject to scrutiny, especially by those who resent that he used the platform of being Australian of the Year in 2014 to advocate on behalf of his people, sometimes with forceful language. They are only accountable to themselves.

Adam Goodes' every action is subject to scrutiny, especially by those who resent that he used the platform of being ...

Adam Goodes' every action is subject to scrutiny, especially by those who resent that he used the platform of being Australian of the Year in 2014 to advocate on behalf of his people. Photo: Reuters

When the sporadic booing began, almost certainly it was retribution for perceived misdemeanours on Goodes' part, such as sliding into an opponent with his knees raised, or playing for free kicks, or projecting a pride in identity that some construed as arrogance.

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Other greats of the game have endured such bouts of booing, though they tended to be short-lived. Soon enough, the anger in the stands faded and the adulation returned because the player's positive achievements far outweighed the negatives.

But not for Adam.

Now, after the latest mauling from a West Australian crowd, Goodes has called "time out" on a playing career that has seen him achieve football's highest individual and team honours not once, but twice, and the nation is faced with an uncomfortable truth.

For two decades, after Indigenous players led by Nicky Winmar and Michael Long took a stand against racial taunts, the Australian Football League has been a catalyst for progress towards reconciliation and closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

No single event has contributed more to a sense of national pride in this country's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage than the annual Indigenous Round, when Long leads a procession from Federation Square to the Dreamtime game at the MCG.

Suddenly, perversely, Australian Rules Football is no longer a showcase for reconciliation and a force for progress, but a mirror on a country's divisions and racist underbelly. How did it come to this? And will the condition be temporary?

Goodes' problems began during the Indigenous round in 2013 when, in the midst of a best-on-ground performance, he was called an "ape" by a voice in the crowd and pointed out the perpetrator, who turned out to be a 13-year-old girl.

The next day the girl told Channel 10 she had not meant to be racist and that she had apologised to Goodes. "When I called him an ape, he explained what ape means for Indigenous people and he said that he doesn't hate me and that I've got to learn from my mistakes," she said.

Goodes responded with grace, insisting he placed no blame on the girl and declaring: "The person who needs the most support now is that little girl." More than two years on, the story has become so twisted that Goodes has somehow become the villain and is being urged to apologise to the girl to stop the booing.

His second "transgression" was to use the platform afforded by being named Australian of the Year to encourage a national conversation about racism, just as Rosie Batty has used her award as a platform to confront the scourge of domestic violence.

"My hope is that we as a nation can break down the silos between races, break down those stereotypes of minority populations, indigenous populations and all other minority groups. I hope we can be proud of our heritage regardless of the colour of our skin and be proud to be Australian," he said in the speech accepting his award in 2014.

Yes, he used more confronting language in an opinion piece after viewing John Pilger's film Utopia, but no more confronting than the language Paul Keating used in the Redfern speech that is regarded as one of the finest delivered by an Australian prime minister.

"It takes courage to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular those truths may be. But it also takes courage to face up to our past," Goodes wrote.

Then came the third strike: the "war dance" performed after he kicked a goal in this year's Indigenous round that critics saw as aggressive and confronting, yet was conceived as a celebration of Aboriginal culture.

Here was a reality check on our reconciliation journey, if ever there was one. Had Goodes explained what he planned to do in advance, briefing those in the commentary boxes about how the idea evolved, the reception would have been different. But an impromptu expression of Indigenous culture was deemed unacceptable and provocative.

The harshest criticism has come from white conservative columnists who have never, like Goodes, experienced the legacy of the stolen generations or the racism that is part of the daily experience of Indigenous Australians.

Among them is former Collingwood player Leon Davis, who remarked in 2013: "Even in Melbourne, I felt racism every day. You drive down a street and pull up next to someone at the lights and they will look and then they will lock their doors."

News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt was openly sceptical that the booing had taken such a heavy toll on Goodes, writing that the Sydney Swans champion was "allegedly so broken" that he was contemplating quitting the game.

The same Andrew Bolt was so bruised at being accused of racial vilification on the ABC's Q&A last year (an accusation that was promptly withdrawn with an apology) that he could not face going to work the next day. How would he cope being booed by thousands of people he did not know, week-in, week-out?

Now, an ugliness has been unleashed and the custodians of the game and, to an even greater extent, the nation's political leaders appear powerless to deal with it. The heat is being felt by coaches, administrators and captains, who have appealed to fans not to vilify players "because of who they are or what they stand for".

Geelong coach Chris Scott has warned that any fans who boo Goodes from now on will be showing they are bigots, and been supported by an overwhelming majority of Cat supporters on social media.

Aside from Goodes, those most distressed are the other Indigenous players, who are being urged by family and friends to take a stand in support of Goodes. But how? Each is likely to find his own way to express his solidarity and empathy.

Whether the booing stops when Goodes returns looms as a test of the national character. Will the tall-poppy syndrome, the disdain for authority and the portrayal of Goodes as a divisive whinger by those who have never walked in his shoes see it continue? Or will those other traits we like to identify with prevail: an innate sense of fairness, a generosity of spirit, an egalitarian ethos and, most of all, a willingness to back the underdog? If they do, something good will emerge from Goodes' pain.

I stand with Adam.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.