Australia’s race discrimination commissioner has condemned the persistent booing of one of the nation’s most high-profile indigenous athletes, warning it has gone beyond sport and become a blight on the country.
Sydney Swans’ Australian Football League (AFL) star Adam Goodes, a former Australian of the Year, has been the target of a barrage of jeers during matches this season, sparking fears he may quit after the abuse escalated and he ruled himself out of an AFL fixture this weekend.
The 35-year-old was allowed an indeterminate leave of absence by his club after being jeered relentlessly and racially abused by rival supporters during a match in Perth last weekend.
It was the latest case of vilification that Goodes has faced in AFL matches over the past year, incidents which have embarrassed the sport and triggered a nationwide debate over racism.
Many believe it is racially motivated and stems from him taking exception to being called an “ape” by a young spectator at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2013, with the abuse reportedly intensifying after he performed an aboriginal war dance during a match last May.
It has everything to do with Goodes standing up against racism and speaking out about indigenous issues.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has no doubts there are racial undertones.
“Let me be clear. There is no question that the booing is of an ugly and unedifying nature,” he said during a speech on Wednesday evening.
“It has everything to do with Goodes standing up against racism and speaking out about indigenous issues.
“Goodes has been a public figure not afraid of challenging prejudice; not afraid of asking questions about Australian history and society. He has done it in ways that have made some people feel uncomfortable.”
Aborigines are the nation’s most disadvantaged population, with few making it as elite athletes.
Goodes has won the Brownlow Medal, the highest award for the AFL’s best and fairest player, twice; in 2003 and 2006.
He has been outspoken about indigenous issues since being named Australian of the Year in 2014.
New South Wales state Premier Mike Baird called Goodes one of the sport’s greatest ever players and said it was “unacceptable” he was being treated in such a way.
“The relentless booing of Adam Goodes breaks the spirit of good sportsmanship,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “It must stop.”
Goodes has received broad support among fellow AFL and National Rugby League (NRL) players with some teams announcing the inclusion of indigenous dances during upcoming games.
AFL boss Gillon McLachlan also called for a halt to the “sheep-like” booing. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had the issue that we have with Adam now about him being booed for 15 or 16 weeks,” he said.
“I do think there comes a point where we need to call out this behaviour and go ‘Enough’s enough’.”
Soutphommasane agreed that it had gone too far.
“The vilification has got to stop. Because it is doing damage – not just to the game of AFL but also to our society,” he said.
“With each match, each week, that this booing is tolerated, more and more people are being given licence to degrade, humiliate and intimidate; to believe that they can hound someone who speaks out about racism into silence.”