The Not-So-Level Playing Field: Why We Love Cathy Freeman And Hate Adam Goodes

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If there’s one thing white people the world over hate, it’s ‘uppity blacks’ who don’t know their place. Boxing great Muhammad Ali is the living, breathing example of that.

The depth of hatred directed at Ali was directly commensurate with the reality of truths that he spoke – that the United States was a racist nation; that it waged war against innocent populations; that it had a desperately troubled past; and that it viewed and treated African-Americans as sub-human.

These days, of course, Ali is considered a living national treasure. Now, when he speaks, people listen. But at the peak of his career, Ali was so widely reviled by mainstream America that he was considered a threat to national security.

Australia has a similar history, and a similar habit of vilifying people who question the official Australian narrative. Think Scott McIntyre, the SBS journalist who was sacked recently for tweeting about Anzac Day. Think John Pilger, who still tells the world of our sins, despite decades of abuse and vitriole.

And think Adam Goodes, a former Australian of the Year who has somehow become perhaps the most hated player in the AFL, and, remarkably, one of the most divisive figures in the nation. In Australia, we might hate the Pilgers and the McIntyres, but we reserve a special disdain for black people who challenge us, and continue to challenge us, despite our attempts to cow them into submission.

On Friday evening, Goodes once again found himself at the centre of a national media storm after he celebrated a goal by performing an Aboriginal war dance at a section of the Carlton crowd, which had been boo-ing him mercilessly during that match. The annual Indigenous Round of the AFL, it’s worth remembering.

What seems to have most upset the delicate sensibilities of the Carlton faithful – and subsequently many white Australians if news website polls and comments sections are anything to go by – is that as part of the dance, Goodes feigned throwing a spear into the crowd. Apparently, real sticks and stones can’t hurt us, but imaginary ones wound deeply.

Eddie McGuire, a man who often speaks with foot in mouth (and has previously suggested Goodes looks like King Kong) sparked the ensuing furore during the half-time break, with this usual blundering commentary: “We’ve never seen that before and I don’t think we ever want to see it again to be perfectly honest, no matter what it is.”

Really Eddie? Never seen it before?

It seems the nickname ‘Eddie Everywhere’ is a misnomer – here’s a video of an Aboriginal war dance performed at the opening of the Indigenous All Stars rugby league game two years ago (a concept, ironically, that the NRL ripped from the AFL after more than a decade of racism-based resistance).

Note to Eddie: They’re using real spears. And still no-one got hurt!

The irony of it occurring over the same weekend that Nazis wearing swastikas and openly throwing 'Heil Hitler' salutes while protesting the 'Muslimifcation' of Australia – wihout widespread media interest, let alone condemnation (most media seemed to level equal blame to those pesky folk who turned out to protest against the racists) – should be lost on no-one.

But I digress. Why is Goodes the focus of such hatred? Why, given his extraordinary talent on the field, and his scandal-free model ‘AFL’ life, does he attract such enmity from AFL fans? It’s worth looking at how we respond to other Aboriginal sports stars for the answer. In this case, perhaps the biggest of them all.
 
Like Goodes, Cathy Freeman also knows a bit about a media storm. She sparked one in 1994 during the Commonwealth Games in Canada, when she carried both the Aboriginal and Australian flags during a victory lap after her gold medal performance in the 200-metre sprint.

While there was a hard core of rusted on bigots who were appalled by Freeman’s act – the Aboriginal flag, after all, was ‘unauthorised’ – overwhelmingly, most Australians approved, so much so that Freeman repeated it at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Freeman has been rewarded for her generosity of spirit many times over (her athleticism and humility, admittedly, helped). She is today, literally, a National Living Treasure.

Adam Goodes, by contrast, takes a very different approach, and gets a very different response.

Goodes directly challenges the Australian story. He confronts us about our racism, and about our past. He reminds us that we took the children away, that we engineered dire poverty which endures today, that we stole Aboriginal land and Aboriginal wages, and that we continue to discriminate against the First Peoples of this land.

It’s worth acknowledging that both approaches – Freeman’s path of reconciliation, and Goodes’ path of truth telling – have enormous value, and both should be honoured. But both should also be understood.

Goodes, like Freeman is very much a winner, so in theory we should love him. He's a dual Brownlow and three times Bob Skilton medalist, a four-time All-Australian, has been named as part of the Indigenous Team of the Century, and has twice won the AFL grand final, including guiding his team to victory in 2012 as captain. By any measure, Goodes embodies sporting success.

But in a sporting nation that routinely denies its history, straying from footy into politics and reminding the non-Aboriginal population of the collective sins of our past is never going to endear you to the masses. You don’t win popularity contests with raw truths, particularly not if you’re a black man.

Goodes’ occasional challenges to racism grind and burn at mainstream Australia. But Freeman’s act complimented our national story. It was an act of reconciliation – ‘I love both flags, I love both people’ – and allowed us to feel precisely the way we collectively like to see ourselves: as a tolerant and inclusive nation, where everyone is equal, regardless of their race, religion or sex.

The fact is, we can't just pick and choose the parts of our national story that we like, and you can't have reconciliation without truth. It's precisely those truths, and Goodes' role in speaking them, that brings into sharp focus the importance of his approach. 

 

 

Every week an Australian woman is killed by a current or former partner, while one in three Australian women aged over 15 have experienced violence at the hands of a man. While things have clearly improved, misogyny remains an entrenched part of our national character.

We’re also partly defined by greed and privilege. Australia is on the top 10 list of nations with the most number of threatened species, and the rate of extinction is not slowing. We have a carbon footprint on a ‘per head of population’ basis that is among the largest in the world. And despite the clear threat of man-made climate change – in particular to smaller, impoverished nations whose carbon emissions are negligible – we remain wedded to big coal, and are currently toying with opening the largest coal mines in the world.

Despite our claim to egalitarianism, we’re also a nation that denies same-sex marriage. Our excuse is that we’re seeking to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And yet, shows like The Bachelor, and more recently Married At First Sight (which tries to marry two people who’ve never met, based on computer modeling) are among the nation’s most popular programs. And for the record, about one-third of marriages from 2000 to 2002 will end in divorce.

We’re a nation that claims violence is never the answer, but we rush to war when we believe it suits our national interest. Our participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq is a case in point. And when that illegal war inevitably lead to the de-stablisation of a region, and an explosion of refugees, we turned our backs on many of those fleeing the violence we helped unleash. Now we jail asylum seekers in indefinite mandatory detention, and our two major political parties compete to create the cruelest policy, the motive of which we pretend is deterrence.

It used to be that only Aboriginal children under 10 committed suicide. Now we have children in immigration detention attempting to take their own lives.

So contrary to the national narrative, we are not the ‘good guys’ we think we are. Collectively, our nation does not live the morals we espouse. But nor are we the worst guys, either. We don’t have a monopoly on hypocrisy in Australia. Although we do have a monopoly on the appalling treatment of our First Peoples. And that’s where the statistics get really ugly.

By every social measure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the most disadvantaged people in the nation, and some of the most disadvantaged people in the world.

The life expectancy of Aboriginal people in some remote communities is worst than a war zone. In Wadeye, it’s around 46 years of age for a black male.

Third world nations have eradicated trachoma, an eye disease that blinds children and adults. Australia hasn’t. Our Aboriginal population has the highest recorded rates of rheumatic heart disease on earth, a preventable disease linked to poor living conditions.

While nations like Canada, the US and New Zealand have signed treaties and made significant advances with their First Nations people, Australia continues to deny even the most basic things, such as land rights.

We jail black males at a rate up to eight times worse that South Africa did under Apartheid. We deny Aboriginal people the right to educate their children in culturally appropriate ways, and we punish them when they resist. We restrict their basic entitlements to a social safety net, we refuse to provide government investment to their communities, and then we blame them for their poverty.

We rail about the ‘neglect of Aboriginal children’ and blame the neglected parents of those children who are trying to raise their kids in third world conditions.

And to this day, we remain the only nation on earth with racist clauses built into our constitution, designed specifically to discriminate against Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people like Adam Goodes.

And then we react with anger when he calls us on our racism.

And on that front, make no mistake: the boo-ing of Goodes is not about his on-field performance. It’s about his Aboriginality, pure and simple. Obviously, we can argue the toss on that all day long, but just as any individual has the right to pretend to hate Goodes for his ‘on-field behaviour’ (his two Brownlow medals were awarded as the season’s ‘best and fairest’ player, and he’s only been convicted of four infractions in a career spanning 17 years) the rest of us have the right to assume that the ferocity of that hatred indicates the depth of that person’s racism.

What’s most instructive about the growing hatred of Goodes is that by contemporary Aboriginal standards, Goodes is anything but a radical. He doesn’t seek publicity, he doesn’t court controversy. He supports constitutional recognition, while many in the Aboriginal community do not. He even served on the Howard government’s Aboriginal advisory council, a hand-picked board of advisers devised to replace the decimation of the democratically-elected ATSIC.

He is, to put it simply, quite mainstream in his Aboriginal perspective. But Goodes appears to have no tolerance for racism, and when it’s directed at him, he confronts it head-on.

The challenge is that it occurs on the sporting field, a venue which has long provided the perfect cover for Australia’s slipperiest form of bigotry – the ‘you can’t prove I’m a racist – I’m pretending to hate him for his footy’ sort of racism that has long polluted our ovals and stadiums. Boo-ing black sports stars has always been the preferred way for Australians to ‘hate the blacks’ without ever being held to account for it. Despite their obvious brilliance, we did it to Michael Long, we did it to Nicky Winmar, we still do it to Anthony Mundine, and now we're doing it to Adam Goodes.

But he's calling us out on it. Goodes has changed the rules. Apparently no-one has yet convinced Goodes that he’s still supposed to stand in line. And quite a few of us fucking hate him for it.

The greatest success of ‘colonisation’ in Australia has always been its capacity to force compliance in Aboriginal people. That’s why violence from Aboriginal people is overwhelmingly directed towards Aboriginal people. They’ve internalized their rage, because the cost of unleashing it on the people who benefit most from their poverty and dispossession has historically been too great a price to pay.

We used to either kill or jail the ‘recalcitrant blacks’, and we sometimes still do. But it’s proving increasingly tough to contain people like Adam Goodes, because they use their power sparingly, and cleverly. And that really unhinges white Australia. How the hell do you respond to a spotless black man who calls you out on your bigotry?

Beyond Goodes, more and more Aboriginal people in Australia are coming to understand that they too have power and agency, and that they can confront our deep national bigotry without it costing them everything they hold dear.

Of course, unlike most Aboriginal people, Goodes is living out his growing consciousness of his own black power in a very public way. But like Mohammed Ali, and Cathy Freeman, Adam Goodes will also inevitably one day be considered a national treasure.

He’s not the font all knowledge. He’s not even the ‘suppository’ of all wisdom. But Goodes is an extraordinary sportsmen, an independent thinker, a great Adnyamathanha/Narungga warrior, and a born leader.

And he does have some very important things to say.

For those who still think this is all just about footy, you’d do well to stop the boo-ing, and start listening.

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** The comments section on this story was suspended because it descended into childish name-calling and abuse.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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