by Chris McLeod - Assistant Bishop, Aboriginal Ministry
I begin with a confession. I am a lover of Australian Rules Football, having served my time as an amateur player, juniors coach, goal umpire, time keeper, jumper washer, arm chair critic, and you can still find me kicking the leather ball around when my youngest son needs someone to practice with. There is much to be admired in the game: athleticism, a high level of skill, leadership, strategic thinking, teamwork, and discipline, to name but a few. However, those of us who have spent some time close to the game also know there is a sinister side to it: debilitating injuries, unruly behavior, a degree of thuggery, a substance abuse and gambling addiction culture, sexism, homophobia, and racism. The latter, racism, is the subject of the Adam Goodes documentary, ‘The Final Quarter’, which aired recently on channel 10.
For those of you who may not have watched the program, or have not followed the details leading to its making, this is what happened. For the last 3 years of Adam Goodes’ playing career he was ‘booed’ incessantly by opposition team supporters. The booing began when he took to task a 13-year-old girl for making racist comments. It was exacerbated when he performed a ‘war dance’ to celebrate the kicking of a goal.
Goodes was made Australian of the year in 2014, which, strangely, drew the ire of some commentators. I think every Indigenous person was quite clear what was going on. Adam Goodes drew attention to racism within the Australian, and football, culture, and proudly celebrated his identity as an Aboriginal man.
This was something that many people couldn’t bear. The former president of the Collingwood Football Club, the late Allan McAlister said in 1983 regarding Aboriginal footballers, ‘as long as they conduct themselves like white people…’ That essentially sums it up really; nothing much has changed since. The legacy of assimilation continues to plague Indigenous people throughout Australia. Article 8 of the ‘United Nations Declaration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples’, endorsed in Australia in 2009, states that ‘Indigenous peoples shall be free from forced assimilation’. The pressure to assimilate into the dominant ‘white’ culture is something Indigenous people experience on a daily basis.
Many people attempted to explain their own and other people’s racist actions by accusing Adam Goodes of being a bad sport, of faking for free kicks, and the like. These are the lamest of excuses for racism I have ever heard; pure acts of self-deception. It is my view that people who do not experience racism directly do not get the deciding vote on what constitutes racism. Adam Goodes is a true champion of the game, having played 372 games at elite level, won 2 Brownlow medals, dual premiership player, four time All Australian team member, member of the Indigenous Team of the Century, and captain of the Sydney Swans. This level of recognition doesn’t come undeservedly. He is also a true champion for Indigenous people throughout Australia. He is an eloquent, respectful, and intelligent spokesperson.
The documentary made me very sad and disappointed, but I was already that from witnessing the harassment of Adam Goodes as it occurred. Is there a Christian response to this? Colossians 3: 8 point us in the right direction: ‘But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another …’. Jesus also reminds us to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6: 31).There is such a thing as common decency and respect, and it has its place in public and private life. Christians can, and should, lead the way in this (we can do so much better at this within the Christian Church, as well). We can remind the world around us that there is a much better way than being abusive and engaging in deceit. ‘Freedom of Religion’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’ do not mean the freedom to abuse, slander, and degrade someone else based on their race, gender, or sexuality.
We as Australian people are much better than that. Common decency and respect needs to find its way into public life, including our sporting life. Perhaps, those of us who love the game can remind our football communities of the time honoured values of fair play and good sporting conduct for players and spectators alike. Our own church congregations can act as role models to the wider community of what respectful inclusiveness might look like.