Why the AFL's Indigenous Round should also be an anti-racism round

May 29, 2014
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The AFL needs to draw the line between vilification and fan banter, writes Danika Wilkinson.

The Essendon Bombers were down by six goals against the Sydney Swans when Adam Goodes stepped up to take another set shot. The beating was about to get a whole lot more painful, and the mostly red and black crowd knew it. On Twitter that night, the second highest trending topic after #AFLDonsSwans was #boos. It was a one-sided match, punctuated by jeers from the losing home supporters.

Harmless crowd banter is exactly that – harmless. An off-putting comment from a fan is akin to an ice bath for an elite athlete; it’s a necessary evil, yet a part of their profession. But at what point does a jeering fan cross the line?

At the Essendon-Sydney game two weeks ago, one angry Bombers fan did exactly that.

Adam Goodes is the Australian of the Year. He’s a talented footballer, dual Brownlow medallist, a campaigner against domestic violence, and works tirelessly with aboriginal youth. He’s an all round great bloke. And he’s indigenous.

But for whatever reason, this particular Essendon member decided to criticise him for just that.

The club, notably, did take a strong stand against the racist comments. The fan’s membership was swiftly revoked – this kind of vilification was not to be tolerated.

Media reports harked back to an infamous incident involving Goodes when the Swans took on Collingwood during last year’s Indigenous round. A 13-year-old girl called him an ‘ape’, prompting Goodes to expose her in front of the 50,000-odd crowd and her eviction by security. The young Pies fan would later claim she ‘didn’t know the term was offensive’.

Fast-forward a year and we’re in the midst of the Indigenous round again. And nothing at all has changed. 

Granted, it’s greatly beneficial for the AFL to recognise the league’s numerous aboriginal players and the impact their culture has had on the game. The teams don jumpers decorated in indigenous artwork; the Sydney Swan’s guernsey was designed by Goodes’ own mum.

But one can’t help but feel that the AFL is dodging the proverbial elephant in the room, avoiding the discussion it knows it needs to have. The round is all about recognition; but it also needs to be about respect.

On Twitter last month the topic #dontsayit sprung up in an attempt to educate people about which ‘harmless’ comments could actually be offensive to an Indigenous person. The tweets ranged from ‘can you play the didgeridoo?’ to ‘really? But you don’t look like one’. The campaign really shed some light on what many people, myself included, didn’t realise was racism.

So why doesn’t the AFL do the same? Start their own Twitter hashtag. Print a list in the match programs. Make an anti-racism code of conduct visible on their website. Heck, they’ve got the money – go all the way with newspaper, radio and television adverts.

My best guess is that it’s uncomfortable territory for the AFL. They’ve spent a lot of time and money promoting the Indigenous round, and don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. They’ve left it up to clubs like Essendon and players like Goodes to take a stand, lingering in the background and releasing media statements when necessary.

Respect for Indigenous players in the AFL, many of whom have been the best the game has ever seen, has come a long way. But with the AFL failing to take a strong stand against racism in the game, it clearly has a way to go.

Danika Wilkinson

afl  racism  sport