Thursday, 4 June 2015

Adam Goodes: a story of class and prejudice


Adam Goodes in AFL round 9, Sydney versus Carlton. Photo: Getty/Cameron Spencer


by RMIT Adjunct Professor Stephen Alomes, author of Australian Football The People's Game 1958-2058 

The below was first published on ABC’s The Drum but contains an additional afterward in light of developments since. 

Australian Football has come a long way since the 1920s when some Carlton players didn't like the smell or the presence of star on-baller Doug Nicholls, who went on to a successful career with other clubs.

Later, the Reverend Doug Nicholls became Sir Doug Nicholls, the Governor of South Australia.

Footy led Australia in its moves against racial vilification in the 1990s, despite some prejudice at local levels.

Despite the tom toms of the politically correct few, vilification has been rare at AFL matches, and the few individual exceptions each year prove the rule.

Yet, have some Hawthorn supporters booing Adam Goodes taken us back several steps?

"Why?" and "Who?" are questions we can't easily answer. The "who" is difficult as the booers are not easy to identify. As Hawthorn's premiership star Jordan Lewis remarked:

I personally don't like it. I don't get why they do it and I don't understand it. I would love for someone to come out and say why they do it ... It's got to stop.

The booing is not related to earlier accusations that the Brownlow Medallist too often slid into other players, or tripped opponents. If that was so, the crowds would be booing Dustin Fletcher or, for different reasons, several noxious taggers who try only to stop a star player. Nor is it significantly related to the booing of champions, who opposing club supporters hate because "they are too good". If it was, the list of targets would be longer.

The pattern of Hawthorn supporters booing Goodes - and they may not be the only ones - brings a rare political note into footy.

Why is this happening in the game that expresses Australian social democracy at its best, the game that puts aside class, religion, ethnicity, race and most other things (although not always gender or sexual preference) for the shared experience of the players and that of the fans?

The most logical speculation is that the booing mixes two elements: residual racism and political reaction.

Let's bring two unmentionables into footy: class and politics. Hawthorn's supporter base has many fans from the upper middle classes, good boys and girls from private schools and with good bank accounts. Sometimes, with class goes conservatism. They may not like Goodes' political radicalism on Indigenous issues and they may feel fortified by the idea that politics should be kept out of football.

In other words, the racism is political and perhaps class-based as well.

Goodes's admirable role as an active Australian of the Year who argued the case for Indigenous Australians may offend some footy traditionalists, who like to keep their class society and their political values separate from the footy field. In some quarters, a degree of unease was felt when Patrick McGorry argued the case for greater expenditure on mental health.

The booers don't please the Hawthorn administration, which is establishing a new Indigenous foundation. Nor do the booers recognise the courage which has brought change. As Adam Goodes remarked:

People like Michael Long, Gilbert McAdam, Robbie Ahmat, Scotty Chisholm and Nicky Winmar, of course, have taken a stance, and it's made it so much easier for the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander footballers to come through without that stress ... For us to go out there and feel equal and run around and just play footy, it's a blessing in this day and age.

The most fundamental reason contrasts with that moral courage. As one voice on the footy blog, The Roar, remarked:

The sad truth is that Australians want, or expect, their sportspeople, particularly their footballers, to be oafish and when they're not (shock, horror, they're human beings with brains!) they get pilloried for it.

Footy is still short on moral courage. Fans and players sometimes feel happier with physical courage alone. Consider the failure of the Essendon players to stand up to the Dank experiments by saying "no".

Perhaps those booing Hawthorn fans are also short on the social democratic values of Australian life that are now under challenge.

Or perhaps the booers prefer those days when the "Australian of the Year" was just a smiling sporting achiever.

Afterword: The Medium may be the Message

When I wrote about the booing of Adam Goodes (well before the SCG match against Carlton and the subsequent controversy),  I suggested that the reasons for his being booed are multifactorial, not simple. This includes the idea that the Australian of the Year should be just a smiling sportsman or woman ('Bewdy Newk!' - tennis champion John Newcombe was, surprisingly, never an Australian of the Year).

While the war dance by Adam Goodes raises many other questions, even if celebrations can vary as in the Jason Akermanis handstands, I want to comment on only one aspect.

The contemporary world doesn't like complexity or ideas. It does like visual presentation and performance. We judge many performers (eg political leaders) as much by their visual presentation as by their content. TV has created this image culture. 

Yet it has always been true that we judge footballers by their performance, by their manner on the field. Consider the theatricality of ‘Richo’, Matthew Richardson for Richmond, the imperious arrogant swagger of Wayne Carey as the dominant bull centre half forward. The bravery, skill and charming manner of James Hird the player won him fans and even continues as James Hird the interviewee today (despite less pleasant realities).

In footy, as well as more generally as Marshall McLuhan suggested, often the medium is the message.

Goodes chose a performance statement which was visual and theatrical, even if unconventional.
Yet he has been living, as a footballer, in unconventional times recently.

While a thousand trolls will have their two cents' worth (could several be expelled from the virtual stands?), unlike the image world of TV, it is all very complicated.

As is too often written in brief academic articles, ‘there are several interesting subjects for future research.....’





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