The Adam Goodes’ saga reminds us that racial vilification is one of sport’s most contentious issues.
Racism in sport historically has been a display of taken for granted behaviors and attitudes. Without recourse, Indigenous Australians have been racially abused from the day they first stepped into the sporting arena. AFL, in particular, had fostered an environment where racist behavior happened systematically, and arguably racism become a sporting institution.
In the early 1990s the dimensions of racism were sufficiently bad for the AFL to convene meetings to discuss players’ code of conduct, albeit their efforts never went beyond being merely token approaches. It was not until Essendon’s Michael Long in 1994 made a public statement against the abuse he had to endure exclaiming “I’ve had enough of this shit. I don’t have to take it”, was it seriously addressed.
Despite years of inaction during which racial vilification sullied the football field, the AFL acted with admirable swiftness following Long’s complaint. By June of that year it introduced Rule 30, the Racial and Religious Vilification Rule, making it an offence for any player or official to threaten, disparage, vilify or insult another person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, colour, descent or national background. The then Federal Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Nick Bolkus called for the punishment of offenders found guilty of racial abuse, as by now the Long appeal was heard in the highest corridors of Australian society. By the start of the 1998 season, the penalties were a $10,000 fine for a player’s first offence and/or a $20,000 fine for the club.
One of the beauties of sport ‘is that it can, in a single moment of clarity, illuminate or delineate a mood or a movement or an era’ (Tatz et al, 1998:96). In 1993, the International Year of the Indigenous Person saw widespread public discussion of Aboriginal issues, but the most articulate summary of the national lassitude was non-verbal: the image of Nicky Winmar raising his guernsey and pointing at his black skin. This defining moment occurred as a response to loud racist abuse from the opposition’s cheer squad. Some reports suggest he yelled, “I’m black and I’m proud to be.” Whatever his words, the classic photograph of him defiantly pointing at his skin was a potent symbol that forced a nation to search its communal soul.
With the reputation of a player prone to extreme bouts of temper – no doubt as a response to the provocation of racist insults (personal view) – he had never been more eloquent or effective for his cause or his colour than he was in that moment.
Twenty years later Adam Goodes is confronted with the same abuse as he raises another potent symbol of his Aboriginality. And again we search our communal soul.