“Not only are whites kicking us, they are telling us how to react to being kicked.”
The famous quip by South African freedom icon Steve Biko comes to mind in respect of the crisis engulfing Australian rules football over the treatment of champion indigenous player Adam Goodes.
Adam Goodes – a 15-year, 365 games veteran for the Sydney Swans – has been consistently jeered by sections of the crowd for weeks, with the booing apparently motivated by the way he affirms his Aboriginal identity.
|Australia’s indigenous population lags behind in education|
The derision began in 2013, when, during a match against Collingwood, Goodes pointed to the stands, complaining that someone had called him an “ape”. The culprit was a teenage girl, who was subsequently escorted from the stadium.
“It’s not the first time on a footy field that I’ve been referred to as a ‘monkey’ or an ‘ape’,” Goodes said.
Critics – including some sports commentators – claimed Goodes had humiliated the teenager, even though he said explicitly he did not hold the girl responsible for the attitudes she’d absorbed.
Five days later, prominent football personality Eddie McGuire linked Goodes to the musical “King Kong” during a breakfast radio programme. He immediately apologised.
In June this year, Goodes celebrated a goal with a “war dance” devised by young indigenous athletes. The dance culminated with Goodes pretending to throw a spear at those sections of the crowd jeering him.
Australian rules football is a contact sport, in which physical clashes are common.
Nonetheless, many pundits condemned Goodes’ imaginary spear as violent and intimidating. The booing thereafter intensified – so much so that Goodes is now reportedly contemplating early retirement.
Ironically, both incidents occurred during the Australian Football League’s (AFL) annual Indigenous Round. The matches were, in other words, staged to celebrate Aboriginal players – but in the eyes of many white people, Goodes was doing Aboriginality wrong.
|In the past, football has provided an important platform for Aboriginal people to speak out against racial injustice. Today, many fans, and a growing number of players, are rallying to support Goodes.|
In some respects, Indigenous Australian culture is far more widely acknowledged by white Australia today than ever before.
Aboriginal iconography invariably features on tourism promotions. Official events often commence with a “Welcome to Country” ceremony conducted by indigenous elders.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott describes himself as “a prime minister for Indigenous Affairs”.
But the furore about Goodes suggests that Aboriginality remains acceptable only within very narrow limits – and that those boundaries are defined by white people.
In 2014, Goodes was named “Australian of the Year”. In the role, he spoke of the unease that many indigenous people feel about “Australia Day”, an annual celebration of white settlement that some activists dub “Invasion Day”.
He also urged Australians to watch John Pilger’s documentary “Utopia”, an excoriating expose of the conditions facing indigenous people, recommending the film as necessary for understanding what he called “our very dark past, a brutal history of dispossession, theft and slaughter”.
His comments further fuelled the hostility.
“Adam Goodes calls Australia Day invasion day,” said football commentator Griffin McMaster on Twitter recently.
“Deport him. If you don’t like it leave.” McMaster did not explain where Goodes, who descends from the Adnyamathanha and Narungga people who have occupied their traditional lands for some 50,000 years, might be sent.
Cricket legend Shane Warne also intervened.
“This whole Adam Goodes drama is ridiculous,” he tweeted. “The public can boo or chant whoever’s name they want! It’s nothing to do with being racist.”
Earlier this week, the West Australian quoted a fan making precisely the same claim – just after he told Goodes to “get back to the zoo”.
No, he assured the newspaper, the remark wasn’t racist. On the contrary, the outrage at Goodes’ treatment was “political correctness gone mad”.
Perhaps the most revealing comments have come from former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.
“If [Goodes] was white or non-indigenous and was conducting himself in the same way that he is,” Kennett argued, “he would probably get the same reaction. It’s got nothing to do with his colour, his race. As good a player as he is … he is provocative”.
Guilty by association
In the United States, activists in the Black Lives Matter campaign note how African-American victims of police shootings are invariably blamed for the violence against them.
They wore the wrong clothes (hoodies, for example), they moved too quickly or too slowly, they were impolite or disrespectful.
Kennett’s comments reveal a similar dynamic. Goodes has been too shrill in responding to abuse, too confrontational when discussing injustice, too provocative in his assertion of his Aboriginality – and therefore the abuse he receives is his own fault.
Though they comprise only three percent of the population, they make up around 28 percent of those in prison.
Earlier this year, Abbott supported the West Australian government’s plans to close 150 of the state’s remote Aboriginal communities, places where indigenous people maintain something of their traditional relationship to the land.
Abbott explained that the government couldn’t “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices”.
There is, in other words, plenty to be angry about.
In the past, football has provided an important platform for Aboriginal people to speak out against racial injustice. Today, many fans, and a growing number of players, are rallying to support Goodes.
Perhaps the controversy will draw more attention to the issues facing Aboriginal Australia – and not just on the field.
In 2015, being indigenous in Australia is not a game.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and a Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, Melbourne.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.