“There comes a point where [we need to call out this behaviour] and go ‘enough’s enough.’ It is draining on Adam… This is something that’s not been going on for a few fews, it’s been going on for months now, and I just don’t know that it reflects well on our game and I think people have had enough of it.” – Gillon McLachlan
“The booing of Adam Goodes is being felt as racism by him and by many in our football community and as such, I urge our supporters to understand the toll this is is having, the message it is sending, and that it does not reflect well on our game.”- AFL Commission statement, read by Gillon McLachlan.
There are many things that made me sad about what has happened — no, what has been done — to Adam Goodes. First among them is that someone who is brave and courageous and a really wonderful person to boot is being forced to endure such abuse. All my interactions with Goodes over the years have demonstrated his kindness, generosity and grace, and I consider it a great privilege to have watched him play hundreds of times.
But as well as the obvious shame of Goodes’ treatment, there is a subtler narrative about what football is, what it could be, and who is welcome.
Over the last week, the AFL has frequently invoked the importance of “the game”, the reputation of “the game”. As though in all things, consideration of the game is paramount. As though the game is the thing we should be worried about here. As though the game matters more than those who play it and those who love it.
The game is resillient. The game has endured. But the game is Australian Rules football, not AFL. AFL is the league. The League is something else entirely.
What is happening to Goodes is not a reflection on the game itself, but what the game has become at the national level. It doesn’t reflect on junior footy or on the local women’s comp or the SANFL.
It reflects on the AFL. The game is not The League.
It reflects on the commercialised game. It reflects on a national competition that is still at its heart Victorian and dislikes interlopers. It reflects a league whose administration is dominated by straight, white men. It reflects a competition whose revenue depends, in part, on the eyeballs and dollars of those who think it is ok to boo a black man for pointing out racism.
And if the commercialised game, the national league, the AFL, doesn’t survive, perhaps it shouldn’t. The League is no more than the people who play the game and those who watch it. If they together have become so ugly, so divisive, so money-hungry that it cannot endure, then perhaps it should just become a memory. It won’t, I know that, I’m not that naive. But I don’t think concerns about the future and reputation of the game are warranted.
Because what we risk is not the game, but the Australian Football League and its clubs’ places in the hearts and minds of those who don’t look and act a certain way.
The League might lose the Indigenous players and fans who can’t accept the compromise that their participation is complicit on their silence about the significant and ongoing institutional discrimination that our country’s First People suffer. It might lose the LGBTQI players and fans who get sick of hearing homophobic slurs when they go to games. It might lose the talented young female player who looks at the lack of options for women wanting a career in football, hangs up her footy boots and tries another sport instead. It might lose the parents who do not want to bring their kids along to a game to hear players denigrated for their race or religion. It might lose the recovering gambling addict who can no longer watch a game without temptation.
It might lose all of those people whose love of the game can’t overcome the fact that many people in the League don’t want them to be there, and the League itself is not doing enough to stop it.
While things have certainly become more elevated in the past few weeks, what has happened to Goodes is not an isolated incident: it’s part of a broader context. There is a subset of people in football who want to keep anyone who isn’t like them out of the game, and they will use any means possible to do this.
And that exclusion is charged with several kinds of intolerences, but racism is front and centre. The game does not want non-white players who challenge existing power structures that let white people benefit substantially from their racial heritage.
Goodes isn’t booed because he’s black, he’s booed because he’s black *and*. He’s black *and* he calls out racism when he experiences it. He’s black *and* he talks about it. He’s black *and* he is an activist. Even he’s black *and* he plays for frees. It’s not just because he’s black, but it’s also not just because he does any one of the other things. This is why he’s treated different both to other black players who don’t do these things and to white players who do. His blackness is absolutely integral to and inseparable from his treatment. And that makes it racist, even if there is an *and*.
This treatement is entirely in line with experiences of those who aren’t straight white men in football: you can be something else, but you can’t be something else *and*. You can’t be a woman *and* someone who talks about the problem of sexual assault in football clubs. You can’t be a woman *and* talk about sexist recruitment policies. You can’t be a LGBTQI fan *and* not be willing to “take a joke” about your sexuality, when really those jokes can be deeply offensive. You can be a gay or bi player, but you can’t be a gay or bi player *and* be out of the closet. Be any of these things and face the wrath of those who don’t want you in football.
It might be boos. It might be abuse in the stands. It might be death threats online. It might be shock jocks trawling for ratings by calling you all sorts of names. It might be columnists who’d rather mock you as an idiot than accept that this abuse affects you. But the moment you assert yourself as someone who doesn’t fit this narrow idea of what someone who is involved in football and isn’t a straight white man should be, look out.
This conditional acceptance also means that those who aren’t straight white men but don’t challenge the norm are able to truthfully say that things are ok for them, which can make it seem as though those who do say something about their treatment are just being a sook. It also means that those who are pushing the different *and* fans out of the game can point to their behaviour towards those who comply with that unspoken contract and say “see I’m not a whatever-ist”. So the ones to accept the bargin serve to make life worse for those who don’t.
Meanwhile, those of us who are different *and* find it harder and harder to continue to love the League that drifts away from us, one that reminds us at every turn that we are only welcome as long as we behave in an acceptable way.
And so we might lose a champion to retirement too soon. And more and more fans will discover that there are other leagues and other codes and other games entirely, those that don’t mind the fact that they might be a bit different *and*. And one of the best and most beautiful things about Australian Rules Football, that is reflects all parts of our community, will disappear in a chorus of boos.
The loud will drown out the good. The game will survive, less than it once was, but it will survive. But the League will become a place where only those who accept the bargain are welcome, and those who dare to challenge the ideas of what they should be are shut out entirely.