Will Peart is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University
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I am usually sympathetic to the Australian egalitarian tradition to dislike grandstanding and pretentiousness. But it turns out the naysayers are right: there’s something rotten about it. Given the brevity of Adam Goodes’ celebratory war dance in Round 9 of the AFL, a minor case of grandstanding but less ostentatious than a Jason Akermanis handstand, the resulting controversy was breathtaking. Commentators wrung their hands over whether it was right, wrong or should, unbelievably, have been approved beforehand. Eddie McGuire called it pseudo-political, as if to be an Aborigine is itself pseudo-political. It follows that Lionel Messi crossing himself after scoring a goal is making a pseudo-political statement about belonging to the Latin Church. Garry Lyon and Damian Barrett were whole heartedly confused and thought it was ‘over the top.’ Sam Newman said the dance was divisive and at the same time defended the consistent booing of Goodes during AFL matches, an interesting take on how to achieve national unity. Mark Robinson mounted a strong defence of Goodes’ ‘five seconds of passion’ in the Herald Sun where the issue was front-page news: saying something about of the controversy it generated.
A strong current in the criticism has been that Goodes was self-indulgent, he distracted from the team game and even from official Indigenous Round celebrations. This runs against our egalitarian tradition to spurn self-promotion. In expressing his cultural heritage he was not behaving as an ideal footballer because footy is a great leveller and should transcend the individual as it transcends politics, culture and race. But there is a problem here, because anyone familiar with Fox, Channel Nine and Channel Seven’s AFL broadcasting would recognise its narcissistic culture. Ego stroking and career checking of ‘characters of the game’ Sam Newman, Garry Lyon, Brian Taylor, Wayne Carey, Jason Dunstall and others is standard broadcast material. Matthew Richardson’s recent interview with actor Megan Gale about her role in Mad Max: Fury Road is symptomatic of it – the interview quickly diverted from her film career to her football-playing husband and then, via his colleagues, to ‘Richo’s’ ability to flirt. Richardson is no more to blame than anyone else; he is enmeshed in a culture that prefers to look in the mirror than outside it. It is true that representing an AFL team on the field and being in the AFL media industry are different positions, but it is interesting there can be such disjuncture between what is acceptable in one role and in the other. Either the self-effacing egalitarian tradition is extremely elastic or it’s full of holes. More often than not it is a filter that allows some individuals, some kinds of footballer, to flourish and define the game through their personalities to the exclusion of others.
When it wasn’t grandstanding that offended people it was that Goodes’ war dance was aggressive. Perhaps this is an inter-generational flinch, a subliminal recollection of frontier conflict when spears ran through our ancestors as they reloaded a musket. The violence of the Australian frontier was papered over effectively after Federation but perhaps the ‘treacherous Black’ is a dormant memory, awoken on rare occasions such as this when symbolic Aboriginal violence slips into the public domain. That seems fanciful but so is the notion that Goodes’ dance was inappropriately aggressive. Four weeks earlier the ANZAC Day AFL match was played in commemoration of Australian military action in Europe, which gives the whole appropriateness of a war-dance question some context.
Ultimately the sad thing about Goodes’ celebration was that no commentator was able to ask ‘I wonder what that meant’ with genuine curiosity. An exchange such as this would be refreshing: ‘Was it a war dance? How common were these in the Aboriginal nations? What does dance mean in their culture? Have you heard it was a medium of communication and that messages were sent along the entire eastern seaboard conveying news?’, ‘No Bristle I had not. That’s very interesting.’ The existence of Aboriginal culture on the footy field that day was exorcised before it had any chance to be understood. Then we fall into the trap of thinking Aboriginal nations had no real culture and no civilisation. From this point it is easy for biologism to take hold, to think Aborigines were closer to apes than whites and for our children copy us. There are multitude of different reasons that Goodes is booed, but, judging from social media, one of these has been a slow-to-emerge sense that he bullied the young fan that day (Round 9, 2013), humiliated her- one of the spectator’s own. But Goodes didn’t blame the thirteen-year-old for calling him an ape, he blamed the things she heard, and if his caution about the messages we give to our children is ignored then the cycle of racism will be rebooted.
For those unaware that calling someone ape or monkey can be a slur on their level of humanity and civilisation, national larrikin and AFL identity Sam Newman illustrates the case for us. While hosting Channel Nine’s AFL Footy Show Newman called a Malaysian man he had never met, ‘that monkey… that man not long out of the forest’. Newman is a natural entertainer with genuine comic timing and wit, who unfortunately also finds the occasional blatantly racist and sexist joke funny. Newman does not retreat from the spotlight and Channel Nine’s celebration of his 70th birthday this year will be sure to highlight his individual achievements as a footballer and entertainer in typical AFL Footy Show style. It is an indictment of our egalitarian tradition that it can be acutely sensitive to the cultural expression of Goodes’ while happily comfortable with the manufacturing of a macho-larrikin personality cult in the case of Newman.
Mark Robinson on Goodes’ dance, Herald Sun 30 May 2015, p. 5.
Citation: Will Peart, The Wrong Moves: Adam Goodes and the Egalitarian Tradition in Australian Rules Football, Australian Policy and History. August 2015.
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