Racism in sport runs deeper than a booing crowd

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The fallout from Adam Goodes’ ‘war-cry’ celebration continued last month when the two-time Brownlow medallist was forced from the field, citing stress leave.

Since drawing attention to racial abuse during a match against Collingwood in 2013, Goodes has been subject to vicious abuse from opposition fans and conservative media commentators. Parts of the football establishment – administrators, commentators and former players – have also condemned Goodes while denying the continued abuse of the Sydney champion is racially motivated.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan avoided describing the “sheep-like behaviour” of booing fans as racist. The Australian newspaper reported that the peak football body, the AFL Commission, was bitterly divided on the nature of Goodes’ continued abuse. Outrageously its chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, was unable to deny reports that some commissioners hold Goodes responsible for his own abuse because of his outspoken views on racism.

Now entering its third year, the booing saga has highlighted that racism in Australian society is built into the nationalist mythology. Since 1788, Australian capitalism has been built upon the historic and continuing destruction and dispossession of Aboriginal people. It has always been contingent on Aboriginal subjugation. The problems of Aboriginal Australia, the products of hundreds of years of systematic oppression, have often been distorted, manipulated and used to justify further oppression. Recent examples of this are the Northern Territory intervention and the plan to close 150 remote communities in Western Australia.

Against this backdrop, racism has been woven into the fabric of Australian life, including sport. Indigenous athletes have struggled for recognition just as the broader Indigenous population has. Eddie Gilbert, a Queensland cricketer who bowled Sir Donald Bradman for a duck in 1931, found himself excluded from higher honours because he was Indigenous.

While many Indigenous athletes have proven themselves champions of their sports, attempts to use their platform to express Indigenous pride have often been met with anger and contempt. After winning gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, runner Cathy Freeman faced disciplinary action after waving the Aboriginal flag during her victory lap. Before his opening fight at the London Olympics in 2012, boxer Damien Hooper was forced to apologise by the Australian Olympic Committee for wearing a t-shirt bearing the Aboriginal flag in the ring.

In an incident similar to that of Goodes, AFL player Nicky Winmar’s defiant stand against racism is one of the most iconic in Australian sporting history. During a match against Collingwood at Victoria Park in 1993, Winmar and Gilbert McAdam, another Indigenous player for St Kilda, were racially abused by opposition fans. After winning the match Winmar lifted his guernsey, pointed to his bare brown skin and declared: “I’m black – and I’m proud to be black!” When some in the crowd responded with more abuse, a defiant Winmar blew kisses to the crowd.

Then Collingwood President Allan McAlister said that Winmar and team mate Gilbert McAdam would be respected “as long as they conducted themselves like white people”. This statement, similar to remarks made about Adam Goodes, cuts to the heart of the issue.

Australia is a country built upon the dispossession and genocide of one of the oldest civilisations in the world. With very little to base a convincing and inspiring nationalist mythology on, sport is often used to express and reinforce Australian nationalism. This nationalism necessarily excludes any meaningful expression of Indigenous identity that undermines the primacy of British and European culture. It is the historical denial of Indigenous society, based on Australian capitalisms attempt to justify its own existence, that causes people to get up in arms about Indigenous cultural gestures in the sporting arena.

Instead of denying the link between the ongoing attempts to subjugate Indigenous people and hostility towards proud Indigenous athletes, we must recognise that racism will infect every aspect of public life until we eradicate the structural causes of racism. This means dismantling the economic system that thrives off the dispossession of indigenous populations, and the accompanying social system that creates and fosters racist divisions. As socialist we highlight the need for systemic change to once and for all create a level playing field.

By Conor Flynn