His stellar career has lately been dogged by controversy, but Adam Goodes retires as a proud Indigenous man calling out his code’s racist underbelly. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Adam Goodes’ bipartisan career ends but legacy will live on

Retiring Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes.
Retiring Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes.

Adam Goodes was misunderstood from the beginning. The Ballarat Rebel, #3308 in the AFL draft, had just kicked six goals in the under-18s VFL grand final. It lifted his profile among scouts. He was average height but lithe, quick and possessed of an impressive vertical leap. 

His friends from that time remember well his final Rebels performance. “That put him on the map,” one high school friend tells me. But Goodes wasn’t adopted by an AFL club until pick 43, and as the Sydney Swans declared their intention, the commentator mispronounced his name. “Pick number 43, Adam Goodies.”

Soon no one would mispronounce his name, and pick 43 would go on to twice win the Brownlow Medal. Only a few years earlier, Goodes was playing his footy in the Victorian regional centre of Horsham, population 14,000. He was close to his mother, good at school, and seemed to charm everyone he met. “He was charismatic,” his old friend remembers. “He had a way of winning people over – teachers, umpires, those in the community.”

Footy came relatively late for someone who would become synonymous with it. Soccer was his first game, and during his teens he’d roll his arm in cricket nets with his mates. Around 13, he picked up footy, but he seemed to play most sports well. “He was very athletic,” his childhood friend remembers. “He had a natural physique and ability, and it was evident early.”

But Goodes was not precociously talented. His pick at number 43 reflects as much. 

“We regularly played against him,” his old friend recalls. “As a junior he was good. He won the under 16s best and fairest award. We assumed he’d get drafted, but you couldn’t predict he’d go on to do what he did, which is a credit to him.”

Goodes was signed by the Swans, but he wouldn’t play much for them in his first two years. He complained to friends of culture shock and homesickness, and it was the stern tutelage of coach Rodney Eade that banged his latent talent into shape. Goodes’ emergence in pro footy was not like that of Joel Selwood or Ben Cousins – boys who would dominate in their maiden years – but a gradual flourishing, the result of hard work and mentoring. It is, in a way, a more impressive story – the years of reserves and tough love didn’t discourage Goodes from becoming his best. 

Luke Ablett was drafted by the Swans three years after Goodes, in 2000. Like Goodes, he was drafted from Victoria, and despite the excitement there was the difficult dislocation from home. When he arrived, he saw in Goodes someone who cared about his teammates. When Ablett’s car broke down one day, Goodes was the first person he called. “I think what has helped him – and probably most others who last that long – is that they care about people,” Ablett tells me, “and will go out of their way to help others where they can.”

But it was Goodes’ monk-like preparation that most impressed Ablett. For Goodes, there was no lazy reliance upon his blossoming talent – his performance was tied to a lonely and unglamorous attention to the small things. “You probably don’t learn things from actually playing with people, but from being around them during the week,” Ablett says. “Goodes’ dedication to recovery and preparation was second to none, particularly as we got older. He was a very good trainer on the track, obviously, but what sticks out is his dedication to the really small things that add up over a week or a season – yoga, ice baths, beach recovery et cetera. He sometimes got a hard time for it, but he knew what he needed to do to get himself ready and he was going to do it. But he was always humble, was honest, and someone that, if he said something negative or [offered] ‘constructive criticism’, you knew it was hard for him to say but was absolutely about the development and improvement of the group.”

This combination of talent and discipline would coalesce into a fabled career: captaincy, two Brownlows, two premierships and his status as one of the all-time great Swans. “Goodes was one of the great tall and mobile running players, who could take pretty much any position,” Daryl Adair, associate professor of sports management at the University of Technology Sydney, says. “He has been an inspiration to AFL lovers in Sydney, and even earned the respect of those in other codes.” 

But it would also be an intensely controversial career. Depending on whom you speak to, a career marred by the racism Goodes was subjected to, or rather by his vain and needless provocations. 

1 . When the booing began

The booing began in 2013, and it was difficult to parse. It was a medley of motivation, all of it boorish. Some saw it as pure racism, others as a reaction to coercion and political censure. But most agree that the booing came in the wake of Goodes pointing to the crowd one night in May when, as he lined up for a kick, someone called him an “ape”. That someone was a young girl. “He called them out by pointing,” Adair says. “Security stepped in, but this is where things went downhill. Goodes was unaware at the time that the abuser was a 13-year-old girl. If it had been an adult the aftermath would have been different.”

In January 2014, Goodes was named Australian of the Year. There were apoplectic reactions. Tellingly, comments have long been suspended on the YouTube video of his acceptance speech, despite the fact that the speech is calm, conciliatory, even anodyne. “He’s not inflammatory…” Adair tells me. “What really disappoints me is the enjoyment that some people seem to get in trying to humiliate another person. And for what? Being an Aboriginal tall poppy who always stands up for himself and others. To some people that’s frightening.” 

The booing intensified. When, during the Indigenous heritage round in May this year, Goodes celebrated a goal by performing a “war dance” in front of Carlton fans, the public’s hostility reached its crescendo. 

Hypocrisy abounded. There was the hypocrisy of Barry Hall, a former teammate of Goodes’, who denounced the war dance as inappropriately aggressive. Hall, of course, was a former boxer, a man built like an industrial freezer, who had smashed Brent Staker’s jaw with a left hook in 2008. Staker’s eyes assumed a cartoonish glaze as he crumpled to the turf, and Hall was suspended for seven games. In Hall’s world, simulated violence is apparently a greater transgression than common assault. 

Then there was the hypocrisy of commentators who understood that games aren’t played in vacuums – they function in the excitement of history, expressed in grudge matches, bad blood and rivalries – yet couldn’t acknowledge or incorporate the deeper tensions of racism into the game’s fabric. A former Richmond player once told me about how intimidating it was playing at Victoria Park – once Collingwood’s infamous home ground – amid the raucous din of bigoted fans. We may mourn the loss of suburban grounds, but not so long ago they were also sites of lawless hatred. It was at Victoria Park that Nicky Winmar made his famous and premeditated gesture, and it was no accident it happened there.

It’s as if the custodians of the game can only stomach footy as a closed machine, all of its dramatic history and grievances sourced from within the game itself. Never shall the outside world intrude. Politics are suspect, effete concerns that needlessly complicate the simplicity of the game’s lore. It’s football as fantasy – an enclosed universe, humming with its own codes and calendars and gods. It was this sentiment that Sam Newman – host of Channel Nine’s Footy Show, and the game’s voluble id – expressed in July this year, when he broadcast a monologue. “I would suggest that the people boo Goodes because he’s turned their game into a political forum,” Newman said. “People go to the football to get away from everything: as a release, an outlet. They don’t want to have to put up with political statements of any sort.”

Of any unapproved sort, Newman might’ve said, because the game has always been political. What is the exchange of class-based epithets between Collingwood and Carlton fans, or Adelaide and Port, but politics? What is the determinedly egalitarian draft system? Or the crassly produced Anzac Day fixture, where the players’ virtues are adoringly compared to those of soldiers? It is not politics generally that Newman and his fans abhor, but particular expressions of it. Newman praises the benefits of escapism, but it’s a pleasing myopia he craves – one cushioned by the unchallengeable primacy of Anglo-ness. 

2 . Differing perceptions

Goodes announced his retirement last weekend, but he won’t be leaving the public eye. What will also linger is the incongruity between the public’s perception of Goodes, and that of his colleagues. 

“What I found most incredible and disappointing about the whole thing was the level to which people would defend their right to treat an incredible person, not to mention his football record, with such hatred and disregard,” Ablett tells me. “I understand that booing is a thing in sport, as much as I don’t like it, but his took it to new levels and with new meanings.”

The prospect of more booing will likely keep Goodes from the traditional lap of honour for newly retired players that happens each year on grand final day. Inevitably, Goodes will be called a “sook” and a “wimp”. It has been remarkable how frequently people have defended their right to behave like mongrels. How sincerely incredulous, for instance, one fan was after being ejected from a ground for racial vilification. “I was the one humiliated by the over-the-top security,” the man said. “Ordered out of my seat, spoken to like I was a criminal.”

It is this cognitive dissonance that Goodes will give his post-footy career to correcting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2015 as "Greater Goodes".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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