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The AFL’s uncomfortable relationship with racism

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23rd May, 2019
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The Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round of the AFL season is fast approaching this weekend.

There will be a great deal of goodwill, reflection and celebration of what Indigenous Australians have brought the game, as well as many wonderful new jumpers.

However, with the upcoming release of two documentaries that will shine light on the Adam Goodes booing saga, it is worth reflecting on some moments the AFL – and large numbers of fans – have got wrong in the recent past.

Scroll through any post on social media about Adam Goodes and you will see plenty of criticism. Comments range from his playing for free kicks, his polarising acceptance speech for winning the Australian of the Year Award in 2014, many references to him being a sook, and of course that incident with the young Collingwood supporter.

Regardless of what led to it, Goodes’ actions at that particular moment were not a good look. Of course, because of that, many in the general public never gave him the freedom to be upset, nor did they try to understand what the insult meant to an Indigenous Australian.

“Suck it up”, they said. “You’re a grown man”.

None of his critics, however, talked about the leadership he showed after the incident, especially the conversation he had with the girl in question.

In Round 9, 2015 – that year’s Indigenous Round – Goodes kicked a goal against Carlton and ran toward a section of Blues fans, performing a dance a young group of Indigenous people had taught him that week. If there had been any ambiguity amongst viewers about his intent, it should have been obliterated when Goodes himself explained in a post-game interview what his dance meant.

Adam Goodes

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)


At this point, the booing of Goodes was only sporadic.

Goodes was criticised in many quarters, partly for throwing invisible spears in the dance. The message was that we can have Indigenous celebrations, but only if white Australia approves exactly how and when.

It seems odd that in Indigenous Round, an Indigenous player doing an Indigenous war dance would be told not to.

At that stage, looking back, white Australia was comfortable with Indigenous Round, just so long as they controlled the narrative.

Despite the manipulation of history that has since happened, it was after this moment the booing of Goodes intensified – the exact moment he exited his designated place as a passenger to the narrative, not a contributor to it.

Speaking of controlling the narrative, readers will remember Heritier Lumumba.

Perhaps not? I’ll make it easier then: Harry O’Brien.

His departing speech to Collingwood in 2014 became infamous because he explained that his real name, Heritier Lumumba, meant that he was “gifted”.


Much like with Adam Goodes, Lumumba’s words and actions were twisted by the public. No one seems to remember that the entirety of his speech was him thanking the Collingwood Football Club for everything they had given him.

This context explains the pride he had in his real name, and that Collingwood had given him such pride.

“No”, so many said. “It’s Harry O’Brien”.

What was an almost impossibly humble speech was manipulated into an arrogant one because, like Goodes, when a black person speaks about their own culture, some of us don’t hear what they say, but decide what they said. The ultimate control of narrative.

Then last year, former Gold Coast Sun Joel Wilkinson made a public statement that he had experienced “gross racism” during his time in the AFL that went well beyond the heckling he received from an opponent in a high-profile incident.


Despite claiming he had endured rights violations such as “religious vilification and racially motivated sexual harassment”, the general public mocked him as well. He was labelled a liar and a money-seeker.

Like Goodes and Lumumba, the theme was the same. Always judge and criticise, but never listen. The AFL barely mustered a public comment on the topic.

While the AFL braces for the public reaction to the documentaries, many will be bracing for the ugly backlash that will come – like always – when minorities speak about their negative experiences in this country.

Sadly, some fans will air racist views again.

The Indigenous Round is tremendous for its celebration of Indigenous culture. But we must not forget why such a round is necessary in the first place.