What we can learn from the national hero who took a stand against racism

Former Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, was one of the best Aussie Rules footballers of his generation but was harassed out of the game by racist crowds. There are lessons to be learned, he says

This picture shows the most infamous and shameful moments in Australian sport. Adam Goodes was one of the brightest stars in Aussie rules football, co-captaining the Sydney Swans to league and championship glory. The football field was the one place, he believed, that his race as an indigenous member of society didn’t matter. But that changed on 24 May 2013 when he stopped play to call out racist abuse directed at him.

Sport brings out the best and worst of people. The highs are euphoric – but depending on your team – infrequent and fleeting. Despite fans following local, national or international teams from birth to death and pledging ever-lasting loyalty, stadia can become bubbling cauldrons of exaggerated emotion, for better or worse. Feelings that usually sit beneath the surface day-to-day are exposed like the tip of an iceberg, betraying a much deeper problem existing in society.

After standing up against racism, Goodes was named Australian of the Year in 2014, a prestigious title that’s been awarded to Nobel-Prize winners, divers that recused the Thai cave kids and Paul Hogan at the height of Crocodile Dundee mania. In his acceptance speech he promised: “racism stops with me”. The last thing he expected was for abuse to not just continue but to build and get worse week after week, documented in a new film The Australian Dream.

Speaking to The Big Issue from Sydney, Goodes reflects on the period. “Every time I went to perform my job, I was being booed. And people knew how that booing made me feel and they continued to do that. I was just rocking up doing something I had grown a real passion for. In the end, going to work with something that I really hated and really didn’t want to be part of.”

When a crowd comes together is it just mindless mob mentality or is it a widely held belief being revealed?

“I definitely believe there is elements of mob mentality but for it to go out on for months, for me to speak to out, saying what I felt it was and for it to continue, you know, you can read between the lines there. It is what it is.”

As he continued to stand against racism, the goading of Goodes intensified at every match over an 18-month period until he decided enough was enough and he gave up the game.

He found himself a reluctant figurehead in a fight he didn’t want to be a part of. “Nobody would want to be in this position,” he says. “But when you look back at it, you have to be in this position if you want to be true to your values and true to yourself. I’m a very proud indigenous man and I can’t just sit back and let things be said about me without confronting them and without having a conversation with people about this.”

Let’s not kid ourselves, racism is happening every day

Goodes believes Australia’s racism problem (not exactly limited to that country) is linked to the fact most Australians don’t appreciate the history of the nation. In 1770 when Europeans arrived, Cook declared the land “terra nullius” (no one’s land). That was despite the fact an estimated 750,000 people from 250 individual tribes with a heritage in the land that went back tens of thousands of years lived there. These two words effectively wiped these people from history and it’s a legacy the country is still blights the country today.

Goodes explains: “I feel that people are more aware internationally of Australia’s colonised history than people that live within it.

“It still makes me quite emotional to think about that last two years of my career and how hard that was to live through, but I’m four years out of the game now, married, little baby girl and I’m focusing on the positive things in my life.”

Goodes established the Go Foundation, which offers academic scholarships for young people from the indigenous population, still marginalised in society. Besides financial support, “we give them cultural immersion for them to understand their indigenous ancestry and for them to be proud of that identity, who they are, where they come from and what they represent.”

Seven years on from the moment that changed the course of his life, Goodes thinks some progress has been made but there is still a long way to go.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, racism is happening every day and it’s whether or not the people who are being vilified have the courage to stand up or even have the voice to stand up. I did that, we saw what happened to me. That doesn’t give others confidence.

“But what we are seeing is a lot more people who have been silent and quiet now supporting other people who are calling it out, letting people know that this isn’t the type of community that we want to live in.”

The Australian Dream will be released digitally on 12 June, with a cast and filmmaker Q&A on the 14 June at 11:30am BST, available to watch live at theaustraliandream.co.uk

Picture credit: AFL, photo Andrew White