Last weekend’s AFL Indigenous Round was especially notable for the build up. It was promoted everywhere as an honour and recognition of the Indigenous people of this land. You really couldn’t miss it. Even in NRL-centric NSW.
It had, as its centrepiece, Nicky Winmar, the St Kilda Saint who famously lifted his shirt to the crowd to highlight he was as proud of his colour and heritage as the crowd was that day to vilify him for it.
The picture of Nicky’s gesture is as poignant as it gets, and I still remember the incident to this day.
Not long before that, cricket crowds boldly, and seemingly, just as proudly, held up racist slogans to visiting teams. It was a sign of the times, but also a time quickly drawing to a close, to be replaced by a more educated, tolerant approach.
Or was it?
20 years on and one of the true gems of the AFL world still has to face being labelled an ape. By a 13-year old girl, no less.
Sport is supposed to bring people together. But if a Brownlow Medallist, dual premiership icon, and genuine superstar to fans and the Indigenous communities with whom he works cannot be admired and respected, then it is indeed a stark reminder that we, as a society, need to work harder.
The fact that the 13-year old is a Collingwood supporter is irrelevant. To make a sweeping statement about a club’s fan base because of this incident or any other encompasses the same type of intolerance that Adam and Nicky faced, and countless others face daily when the cameras aren’t on.
And while the name Adam was called resonated immediately within his soul, this was a little different to the same epithet being used by opposition players toward him over the years.
This has to be seen in the context of the Indigenous round in which it occurred, and I’m sure the most heartbreaking and shattering part about the incident (as Adam later described it), was what it represented.
Had we not moved on at all in the space of 20 years? Were young children still being indoctrinated by parents, guardians and, dare I say it, role models, that racial intolerance was OK?
Sweeping aside the abhorrent and reprehensible comments from conservative ‘talkback newspaper editorials’ which insinuated the entire incident was fabricated by the media as if they had concocted and puppeteered the entire thing just so they could ‘bully’ a 13-year old, we now have to listen to Eddie Maguire advancing the Adam Goodes name to promote a King Kong musical.
Now, I don’t know if he is a racist or not, or just plain insensitive. Maybe it’s simply a gaffe reserved for Collingwood presidents. The president at the time of the Winmar incident said ”As long as they [Aborigines] conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them,”.
As a white man, I’m sure he, like his predecessor, sees it all as a misunderstanding and devoid of malice. But to a minority group, the attitude is an oppressive one, and a constant reminder that we are not all treated equally.
At the very least, it is a measure of how an attitude can be embedded beneath the skin from a young age.
The most disturbing elements of this whole affair are, firstly, that it would seem very little progress has been made in the way Indigenous (and other) Australians are regarded since the Nicky Winmar incident.
Secondly, that it appears to permeate our culture, from the youngsters in the suburbs who should have been taught better by now, right through the social heirarchy to the ubermenschen of our society, like our multimillionaires, who definitely should know better.
The shining light remains Adam Goodes himself, who has shown grace and class in extending the olive branch to his young tormenter, explaining why the remarks were so hurtful and, ironically, pushing the reconciliation process forward when it should really be coming from others.
What a beautiful example to set.