Indigenous when he’s winning

The controversy erupting over Adam Goodes’ game time war dance is the kind of event which can only help outsiders distinguish Australia from New Zealand. While the haka, a traditional Maori challenge, is a routine part of New Zealand sporting life, it seems Australia is still suspicious of any integration between its national pastimes and its Indigenous cultures. The nasty reaction to Goodes’ spontaneous war dance proves that, although Indigenous players themselves can be popular, their culture isn’t.

It’s a situation that, for New Zealanders, is scarcely imaginable in reverse: instead of earning the roaring respect of the crowd, Goodes’ Indigenous war dance was met with boos and hisses. Eddie McGuire found it ‘violent’ and ‘aggressive’, while internet trolls vandalised Goodes’ Wikipedia page in retaliation. Respectable Australians may perhaps write this off as just another case of rowdy bogans behaving badly, a typical Eddie McGuire brain explosion, and another day in the life of an internet troll. Yet the unspoken explanation, and the only explanation that can account for history, is the relationship between sport and colonialism.

Australian sport is often talked about as the great equaliser: a sacred space where camaraderie can overcome intolerance and exclusion. Skin colour and surnames are irrelevant and athletic ability is the only measure of success – except when it isn’t. Eddie Gilbert, a Queensland cricketer who bowled Sir Donald Bradman for a duck in 1931, found himself excluded from higher honours because he happened to be Indigenous. In 2005, Parramatta Eels player Dean Widders was called a ‘black cunt’ by Rabbitohs captain Bryan Fletcher. And who can forget the moment Nicky Winmar lifted his jersey to honour his black heritage?

Quite the opposite to being the great equaliser, professional sport is actually the site of a great deal of public racism. But it’s also one of the most reliable pathways to success for Indigenous men. Football is, among other things, seen as a performance of a particular national identity and, for those Indigenous men who participate in this performance on-field, mainstream acceptance can follow. Yet Goodes has always subverted this performance. While he uses his athletic ability to perform the Australian identity on-field – blokey, fair dinkum and the rest – he uses his off-field profile to perform his Indigenous identity. For those who see the football codes and their players as quintessentially Australian, and think of ‘Australia’ as distinct from its Indigenous heritage, this must be terribly confronting.

This subversion of the expected ‘Australian’ performance offends the twin principles of settler colonialism: assimilation and integration. Both rely on Indigenous people performing the ‘Australian’ identity. When these principles are subverted, especially in a cultural institution like the AFL, sports fans struggle to find a modern response. Previous generations would simply exclude the Indigenous person, as they did to Gilbert, but modern fans don’t have that power. Thus they are left with the option of, quite literally, booing.

Perhaps this indicates progress of a kind, but a public retreat into crude personal racism is nothing to be proud of. Indigenous players may no longer be explicitly excluded from sport, but other harmful myths remain, like the idea that Indigenous people – and Pacific Islanders, for that matter – have a genetic propensity for aggression and are therefore naturally more suited to sport. It’s a new spin on the old idea of Indigenous peoples as ‘savages’. Just like the myth that sport is a meritocracy – as if selection were made on talent alone – is a twist on the capitalist idea that the system is impersonal.

The myth of the Australian dream is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of mainstream society, will be treated and respected as members of that society. But this rule is only ever half-enforced when it comes to Indigenous people. They were never meant to be part of the Australian story. What Nicky Winmar knew in 1993 and Adam Goodes knows today is that sporting success is perfectly compatible with inequality and discrimination. The right to participate does not inevitably change the power relationship between (Indigenous) players, (white) fans and Australian society.

Colin Tatz coined the phrase that Indigenous players are ‘Australians when they’re winning and Aborigines at other times.’ Goodes is saying that he is Indigenous when he’s winning and Indigenous no matter what.

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

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  1. I can only speak for my experiences and what I saw while working for AFL New Zealand over 2013 and 2014. In that time we hosted a number of youth teams from Australia, including but not limited to teams made up of young Indigenous men, young indigenous women, and youth girls teams.

    The tours were part of a wider strategic campaign (which includes things like Indigenous Round, the series of matches that the Adam Goodes incident occurred in) to bring AFL out of the cultural position it has stereotypically been part of – basically a game for white male Victorians. They included significant opportunities for leadership and development, and expressions of Indigenous cultural identity were encouraged and welcomed. Put it this way – Goodes’ war dance was a section of that performed by the young Indigenous male team, the Flying Boomerangs, before games.

    And out of all of the cultural initiatives undertaken by the AFL, they have the best chance of sparking a wider cultural change within the sport and within wider Australian society. Each member of each of those touring teams was well supported to make the trip, but they were also expected to go back to their clubs and communities and take on leadership roles, to show other Indigenous youth and young women that there was a place for them in footy, and with that, a place for them in Australian society.

    The reason I say they have the best chance of changing behaviours and attitudes in Australia is twofold. Firstly, it’s a bottom up approach to social change – the AFL wants to help create a generation of leaders who will bring new attitudes to the fore over the course of their lives, as opposed to the top down approach of initiatives like Indigenous Round. And secondly, by focusing on youth, there is a recognition that some attitudes of older Australians are simply too ingrained to be shifted, and that a different approach will be more successful.

    Some of the worst abuses committed against Indigenous Australians occurred within living memory. Queensland only gave Indigenous people the vote in the 60s, around the same time that the practice of stealing Indigenous children ended. Other examples of official discrimination abound, and while they may have been legislated away, racist white Australian attitudes have been significantly harder to change.

    It is fortunate for these young Indigenous people that they have role models like Adam Goodes to look to, and also fortunate that men of Eddie McGuire’s generation are closer to dying out, and taking their attitudes towards race relations with them. People like Xavier Clarke, Adam Goodes, Peta Searle and Jason Mifsud represent the changing face of the sport – one that truly belongs to all Australians, indigenous and settler.

    There is no denying the ugliness of the racism that was displayed in the wake of the Adam Goodes incident, but the one silver lining is that programmes and policies are in place to make said racism less likely in the future.

  2. Interestingly, the national rugby league team used an ‘indigenous’ war cry until 1967 or so.

  3. I could see no point in joining in all the screaming and shouting but wanted to do something to show my respect for Adam Goodes and the work he and Michael O’Loughlin are doing. So I made a donation to the GO Foundation. Practical and very satisfying. Maybe other non-indigenous Australians would consider doing the same?

  4. excellent article!
    I cant say that I have the rosy optimism of Alex Braae “the one silver lining is that programmes and policies are in place to make said racism less likely in the future.” I see no signs of the racism of the average Australian changing any time soon and I am somewhat dubious about the ‘programmes and policies”. Racism is deeply embedded in the Australian psyche, including those of politicians and policy makers.

  5. I played a lot of sport in my 66 years on this earth. And I think on a footy field i was called every insult possible and to be truthful I responded in kind. If you were a red head you copped it, if you were short like me you also copped it. If you had no hair you would cop it and even if you played footy with one arm I’m pretty sure wou would also cop it too! When Adam did his dance rather than immediately deducing that it is just one more example of just how racist Australians all are could it just be possible that the Carlton supporters were simply ripping into a Sydney player who was being a bit of a smart arse….

  6. Everyone loves the Haka. Among the many reasons is that it’s performed by the entire team in address to the entire opposition team. It’s also ritual: we expect it, we make time and space for it, we enjoy its representations.

    Comparing the Haka with the impromptu Goodes war-dance – and arriving at a corollary regarding relative levels of racism in Australia and New Zealand – is facile and disingenuous. I’m indifferent to Goodes’ act (it didn’t scare or offend me), but I deplore the intellectual left’s rushing in to condemn the “nasty booing.” A bit of context for the less sporty wouldn’t go astray, yet most of our sports commentators have been too busy stroking their sense of white liberal guilt to provide any perspective. Everyone wants to look past the moment to make pompous statements about The Bigger Issue, but that’s more to do with their sensitivities than anything that happened at the game.

    Carlton are running last, and destined to stay that way for the duration of the season. Their list is shot, and for fans accustomed to seeing themselves as a powerhouse it’s a genuine annus horribilis. To wit: any Blues supporter rocking up to the SCG on Friday night was there out of loyalty, there to see their boys get done against a Swans outfit that is far more powerful on and off the field than is Carlton. So when Goodes extended the lead to 42 points, I can’t applaud his timing – or his decision to target opposition fans – as being particularly classy. It would have been far better addressed to Swans fans at the game’s end, and I don’t understand why his otherwise splendid expression of Indigenous pride had to be made at the expense of the minority visiting fans who, I stress, were attending a game that Carlton could only ever have lost (and badly). I’d like to see the Goodes war-dance come out in a Prelim against Hawthorn with his team in arrears. That would be gutsy; I’d clap forever.

    What’s really appalling is the way these Carlton people have been labelled racists because, in the cut and thrust of the moment, they didn’t go along with Goodes’ showy and stagey antagonism in the best interests of the nation’s discourse on racism. No racist language was used – but apparently the ‘tone’ of the boos was driven by something unsavoury. The darling lefties must have better ears than me. All I heard were fans telling a prima donna to rack off. I’ve done the same to many a (white) prima donna from the bleachers. It’s half the reason I go.

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