Why Adam Goodes rejected the AFL Hall of Fame offer

AFL hero Adam Goodes. Photo: Sporting News Australia/Twitter.

Adam Goodes, 2014 Australian of the Year, dual Brownlow Medal recipient and two-time grand final winner with the Sydney Swans football team, last week turned down the opportunity to be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. Alec Smart argues that there are several good reasons for rejecting the offer.

The multi-award-winning Adam Goodes, who played a record 372 games in the national premiership from 1999 to 2015 – all for the Sydney Swans – has rejected the Australian Football League’s (AFL’s) invitation to induct him into the Hall of Fame. This is apparently attributable to the racism he endured while he was a high profile player, which the AFL leadership was negligent in addressing

AFL executive member Tanya Hosch, the first Indigenous person appointed to the AFL executive, told ABC Radio National’s Drive program: “I can’t say I’m surprised that that’s the view that he holds … I see this as the consequences of us letting him down rather than any shortfall on Adam’s part.”

The Australian Football Hall of Fame, established 1996, eulogises players, coaches, umpires, administrators and media personalities who have brought honour to the game. The Hall of Fame committee considers candidates on the basis of their ability, character, integrity and sportsmanship.

Goodes earned both his Brownlow Medals for sporting excellence, the football league’s highest honour, in 2003 and 2006, respectively. On the field, Goodes was a versatile and key player who helped win two premierships for the Swans in 2005 and 2012.

The judges’ unanimous decision to induct Goodes in the Hall of Fame would have seen him featured among a distinguished elite of less than 30 individuals regarded as ‘Legends’ of the game.

However, in a public statement, the AFL confirmed that when Goodes was approached earlier in 2021, he informed them he would decline their honour.

“The treatment of Adam in his final years at AFL level drove him from football,” Australian Football Commission Chairman Richard Goyder admitted. “The AFL and our game did not do enough to stand with him at the time, and call it out. We hope that there will be a time in the future when Adam will want to be connected to the game again.  This is a decision for Adam, and Adam only, and we understand and respect his choice.”

Goyder revealed that Goodes requested that his reasons for rejecting the Hall of Fame offer be withheld until after the 2021 ceremony, originally scheduled for 22 June but now delayed due to Victoria’s latest Covid-19 outbreak.

“Adam had asked the AFL to wait before announcing his decision, which has now been made public separately,” Goyder told ABC News. “Adam was clear he did not want his decision to detract from the moment for the 2021 inductees. Adam remains a great champion and leader of our game who has given more to our sport than he received in return.”

Adam Goodes has Adnyamathanha and Narungga Aboriginal heritage on his mother’s side. Photo: HPeterswald/Wikimedia.

Racial harassment

Goodes, who is of Indigenous heritage through his mother’s Aboriginal ancestry (Adnyamathanha and Narungga clans, from the Flinders Ranges and Yorke Peninsula, respectively), took indefinite leave from the competition in August 2015. He cited stress from persistent racial harassment and vilification in both mainstream and social media, with crowds incited to boo him during matches. He permanently retired from the game the following month at the end of the 2015 season.

Despite being an Order of Australia recipient, the 2014 Australian of the Year, and a two-time Brownlow Medal winner, Goodes was repeatedly condemned by high profile spokespeople in the media and politics for campaigning on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Among his harshest critics were conservative media personalities, including Adam Bolt, Miranda Devine, Alan Jones and Sam Newman.

This vilification led to choruses of catcalls and booing by aggressive football fans, who, during his last few seasons of competitive playing, taunted Goodes every time he took custody of the ball.

AFL apology came too late

After his September 2015 retirement from the game, the AFL ignored Goodes’ assertions that he was racially harassed.

However, four years after his formal departure, in April 2019, on the eve of the premiere of The Final Quarter at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, the AFL and all of its 18 clubs issued an unreserved apology for the sustained racism and crowd hostility, which culminated in Goodes’ retirement from football.

The Final Quarter was the first of two documentary films that explored the systemic racism Goodes was subjected to during his Aussie Rules football career.

The second film, The Australian Dream, released in August 2019, was written by TV commentator, political journalist and Wiradjuri Aboriginal Stan Grant.

The AFL official statement issued on behalf of members, administrators, staff and players said: “Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football. The game did not do enough to stand with him, and call it out.

“We apologise unreservedly for our failures during this period. Failure to call out racism and not standing up for one of our own let down all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, past and present. Our game is about belonging. We want all Australians to feel they belong and that they have a stake in the game. We will not achieve this while racism and discrimination exists in our game.

“We will stand strongly with all in the football community who experience racism or discrimination. We are unified on this, and never want to see the mistakes of the past repeated.”

Analysing his playing methodology on the field, Goodes was a divisive character, but off-field he suffered and still continues to battle racially charged hostility towards his Aboriginality.

Across social media there are numerous webpages dedicated to belittling him. For example, on the Facebook-owned Instagram, numerous profiles, such as @adam_goodes_hate1 have been posting racist memes taunting Goodes as far back as 2015.

Recently, in August 2020, @the_real_adam_goodes posted a photo of Goodes holding his shirt up whilst pointing to his dark skin with the caption, “Throwback to when I beat the boys in a banana eating competition.”

@adamgoodesmonke, who uses a monkey for the hate-page’s profile picture of Goodes, has written a single sentence: “Nigga penis cunt.”

Despite a stated policy of preventing hate-speech and racism, Facebook allows these profiles to continue.

History: four incidents that put Goodes in bigots’ gunsights

There are, arguably, four main events that took place during the latter part of Goodes’ football career that propelled him into the radar and, ultimately, the gunsights, of powerful and reactionary commentators, who systematically shot him down. Those critics encouraged members of the public to take aim too.

1. Goodes wrote an essay suggesting Aussie Rules may have been derived from the historic Aboriginal game Marn Grook.

In March 2008, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of Aussie Rules football, Goodes wrote an essay titled The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice, printed in The Australian Game of Football Since 1858.

In it he raised the prospect that Aussie Rules may have been derived from the Aboriginal game Marn Grook (or Marngrook) which significantly predates it.

Melbourne sports historian Gillian Hibbins angrily rejected the Marn Grook theory as a ‘seductive myth’ and went on to personally attack Goodes, her vexatious invective published across several News Corp publications.

However, the AFL, along with many historians, now agree Marn Grook influenced Aussie Rules and in June 2019 they issued a statement: “Aboriginal history tells us that traditional forms of football were played by Australia’s first peoples all over Australia, most notably in the form of Marngrook. It is Australia’s only Indigenous football game – a game born from the ancient traditions of our country.”

Australian Rules football was founded by Tom Wills in Victoria, who formally codified the game with ‘Ten Simple Rules’ on 17 May, 1859. Wills, although born and raised in Australia, was educated from the age of 14 at Rugby College in England during the 1850s, where he played an early version of the game we now know as rugby football.

Upon returning to Australia, he devised a version of football that would keep cricketers active during the winter months, including its own unique offside rules and means of scoring points.

In the 1850s, Aboriginal clans across Australia’s south-eastern corner played a competitive ball game with a stuffed round animal skin (sometimes made of kangaroo scrotum) known as ‘Marn Grook’ (from a Woiwurrung or Gunditjmara word meaning ‘ball game’).

Although no goals were scored, like Aussie Rules the ball was kicked back and forth between team members and ‘marked’ – coincidentally called a ‘mumarki’ – for a free kick by whomever caught it in the air.

Goodes, in his essay, speculated that Marn Grook inspired Tom Wills when he devised Aussie Rules because, as a boy, Wills socialised with the Djab Wurrung Aborigines living near his family farm in The Grampians. Wills also spoke their language and almost certainly would have watched his Indigenous neighbours playing Marn Grook.

Unfortunately, an Indigenous player like Goodes remarking on the similarities between Marn Grook and Aussie Rules, and speculating the former lead to the other, drew the wrath of bigots.

Goodes’ 2008 essay set the stage for a bigger showdown between him and the powerful reactionaries of Australia’s conservative media.

An 1857 engraving by Gustav Mützel that features Indigenous Aboriginals fishing and feasting by the Murray River, while a game of Marn Grook is being played on the riverbank.

2. Goodes reported a teenage girl who called him an ‘ape’ during a match.

On one of the many occasions when Goodes was racially abused by spectators during a game, a 13-year-old girl called him an ‘ape’. On this occasion Goodes, decided to respond and pointed the abusive girl out to security personnel, who escorted her from the stadium for a police interview.

The incident took place during a match between Sydney Swans and Collingwood Magpies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on 24 May 2013. Sadly, it occurred during the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, intended to recognise and celebrate Australia’s Indigenous players and culture.

Goodes said later, “I am pretty gutted to be honest … To come to the boundary line and hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ‘ape’. It was shattering … But it’s not her fault. She’s still so innocent, I don’t put any blame on her, unfortunately it’s what she hears. It’s the environment she’s grown up in.”

The young girl later telephoned Goodes to apologise, then sent him a letter, writing: “It was good to talk on the phone. I’m sorry for being racist. I didn’t mean any harm and now I’ll think twice before I speak.”

Goodes similarly posted on Twitter: “Just received a phone call from a young girl apologising for her actions, let’s support her please.”

Nevertheless, conservative opinion makers, led by News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, host of the nightly Bolt Report on Sky News TV, attacked Goodes for ‘victimising’ the young girl.

Andrew Bolt has a 2010 Federal Court ruling that he contravened the Racial Discrimination Act.

‘Ape’ has long been an insult specifically targeted at darker-skinned people. It was popularised after Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (published 1859) was corrupted by eugenicists and racists, who believe humans evolved separately into superior and inferior species. They promoted the lie that Africans and other darker-skinned races, such as Australian Aborigines, were more ape-like and less intelligent than paler-skinned Europeans.

Hostile football fans then began booing Goodes during games whenever he got his hands on the ball.

3. Voicing the fact that, for Indigenous people, Australia Day is Invasion Day.

Goodes was accorded the 2014 Australian of the Year honour on 25 January, 2014. However, his courteous acceptance speech on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra rankled his detractors.

Goodes dared to mention the two words Indigenous rights activists use in their campaign for a change to the date Australia Day is celebrated (26 January): ‘Invasion Day’.

26 January commemorates the day in 1788 when the First Fleet of British convicts, marines, settlers and administrators relocated to Sydney Cove from Botany Bay, which they found unsuitable for a permanent settlement.

Indigenous Australians point out that 26 January commemorates Britons conquering the continent, but fails to take into account Aboriginal history.

“There was a lot of anger, a lot of sorrow, for this day and very much the feeling of invasion day,” Goodes said in his acceptance speech.

“But in the last five years, I’ve really changed my perception of what is Australia Day, of what it is to be Australian and for me.

“It’s about celebrating the positives, that we are still here as Indigenous people, our culture is one of the longest surviving cultures in the world, over 40,000 years …

“It’s a day we celebrate over 225 years of European settlement and right now, that’s who we are as a nation but we also need to acknowledge our fantastic Aboriginal history of over 40,000 years and just know that some Aboriginal people out there today are feeling a little bit angry, a little bit soft in the heart today because of that, and that’s OK as well.”

On 28 January, 2014 News Corp conservative opinion columnist Miranda Devine denounced Goodes’ honour in Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph.

Adam Goodes is a terrible choice as Australian of the Year. A respected sports celebrity, he is being rewarded for victimising a powerless 13-year-old girl from a disadvantaged background … does anyone think he would have won this time if he hadn’t made such a fuss about a little girl who yelled, ‘You’re an ape …?’”

2GB radio broadcaster Alan Jones told the Sunrise program on Channel Seven, “The man is always a victim. Then he became Australian of the Year and tells us that we’re all racists, every time he speaks, Australia is a racist nation. People don’t like being told that stuff.”

Hostile spectators booing Goodes at AFL games increased.

4. Goodes celebrated kicking a match goal by performing an Aboriginal war dance.

On 29 May, 2015, during a game against Carlton, Goodes’ mimed throwing a spear in the direction of Carlton fans during a seven-second Aboriginal dance to celebrate scoring a goal. Many spectators and commentators were incensed, interpreting the dance as ‘threatening’. This despite the fact it took place during the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round to promote Indigenous sportspeople, and Maori hakas – war dances – are a constant feature of New Zealand rugby matches.

Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt condemned the spear incident, describing it as “a clearly hostile act” against the Carlton fans. “I thought Goodes was very silly to stage a kind of war dance and threaten fans with an imaginary spear … Now see how off that is? Inflammatory? Imagine a white guy pretending to shoot fans from another race.”

This writer personally witnessed a white player mimic shooting rival fans with a bow and arrow after scoring a goal at an Aussie Rules match in Sydney on 21 July, 2019. No one reacted, especially not irate media personalities.

In July 2015, Alan Jones told Channel Seven’s Sunrise TV program: “They’re booing Adam Goodes because they don’t like him, and they don’t like his behaviour, they don’t like the spear-throwing and the running in and doing a war dance and so on and provoking people. They just don’t like the fellow and Adam Goodes can fix all this by changing his behaviour.”

“Changing their behaviour” is not something conservative critics demand of New Zealand rugby players when they perform a haka Maori war dance prior to a match, a tradition that extends back over a century to 1888, when the New Zealand Natives rugby team performed a haka against Surrey in England.

In 1905, the newly-formed All Blacks, who still retain an unmatched 77 per cent winning average in their games, performed a haka before the start of their first international match against Scotland.

The Winmar Shirt incident

The negative reaction to Goode’s spear-throwing dance was reminiscent of the infamous Winmar Shirt incident.

On 17 April, 1993, St Kilda player Nicky Winmar, an Indigenous man, turned to aggressive fans from Collingwood Magpies football club that were shouting racist insults. He lifted his jersey and pointed at his skin, calling: “I’m black and I’m proud to be black!”

The moment was captured in iconic photos and in July 2019, a statue – based on one of those images – was unveiled at Optus Stadium in Perth to commemorate Winmar’s defiance.

The unveiling of the statue is a laudable event; it represents past wrongs being recognised and gives hope for positive changes in the future – but the fact that the AFL is still dealing with similar issues almost 30 years later shows how long there still is to go.

Nicky Winmar, a Noongar Aboriginal and St Kilda player who pointed at his skin, declaring: “I’m black and I’m proud to be black!” when racially taunted by Collingwood players in 1993. Bronze statue outside Optus Stadium, Perth, Western Australia.