Play the Ball, Not the Man

The most concerning part about the Adam Goodes debate is the labels that each side hands out to the other.  

Adam Goodes is a human being. In the last few weeks, he may have felt more like a political football. After months of booing from opposition Australian Football League fans, the Sydney Swans champion decided to take a short break from football. He appeared to be anxious and ill at ease with what was confronting him in his workplace, which just happens to be a football field.

For some Australians, the recent debate that has centred on his booing, has been tortuous. Not because they share Goodes offence at the situation, but more that they are sick of hearing about the issue. For others, however, the debate has created passion, vigorous debate and a strong focus on the challenges still faced by Indigenous Australians.

Goodes had every right to feel offended and disappointed by the crowd behaviour that he repeatedly encountered. He and those who have gathered around him, including coaches, players, fans and Australians with no particular interest in football, have every right to express their perception that the basis for the booing was racially-based. Equally, those who perceive that Goodes is a professional footballer and should deal with the booing — and that perhaps the booing is nothing to do with race based matters — also have a right to express their view. This is a conversation that has to be had.

The most concerning thing for free speech in Australia is when those from either side of the political spectrum perpetuate their own brand of intolerance, using emotional coercion to silence the other side. I have long said that the average Australian values ‘fairness’, by being treated fairly and treating others fairly. In evaluating the response of the different groups on this topic, I am not sure that fairness always prevails. Instead, it becomes a debate of ‘see it my way or you are a racist’, or ‘un-Australian’ or ‘leftie sh#t’. To have the opinion that Goodes was ultimately the victim of a race-based reaction is understandable, just as it is to suggest that he could have dealt with the young fan differently. They are both understandable positions to take. A person is not racist just because they do not support Goodes’ position and a person is not a ‘politically correct leftist’ because they have fallen in behind Goodes and his actions. Social media is full of such abusive comments as these rantings to Goodes critics, ‘spoken like the pathetic white fascist you really are’, ‘you uneducated douchebag’ or ‘I never knew you were such a bogan’. It appeared that any person who did not support Goode’s position was an uneducated fool of our society. On the other side of the fence, I was seeing such bizarre commentary as, ‘you are un-Australian, to think our diggers lost their lives for leftie trash like you’ or ‘Go live with the alchos, you hippy sh#t’. Playing the man and not the ball is not a great look.

The day that Adam Goodes called-out a 13-year-old for girl for making ‘racist comments’ during a football match, he started a very important and public discussion that was not only about racism, but about how we make our statements. Goodes dramatically and literally pointed his finger at the young girl. Many have the view it was this action that has lead to the booing, yet it is important to continue this discussion without marginalising those with strong views either way. Making people too scared to have an opinion, let alone express it, can marginalise groups with strong views, cause under-currents and radicalise opinion.

We need to keep the debate going until we are able to appropriately approach and manage acts of prejudice. Whether or not Goodes on- and off-field statements are the ‘right way’, his actions have opened the door for a discussion that has to be had and debaters need to play fairly.

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