August 2019

Arts & Letters

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

By Sam Vincent

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career

Early in The Final Quarter, a new documentary about race and the AFL, we hear the voice of Eddie McGuire start to waver. It’s 2013, and Eddie has done bad.

The previous day, on Triple M’s Hot Breakfast with Eddie McGuire, the broadcaster and gameshow host – who is also a game-day commentator on the Fox Footy Channel, former chief executive of the Nine Network, and current president of the Collingwood Football Club – suggested that Indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes be used to promote the musical King Kong. This was five days after the Sydney Swans champion had alerted security to a 13-year-old Collingwood fan who called him an “ape” during a game at the MCG.

Back on air after a day of public judgement, McGuire tearfully finds an upside to his ordeal: “It’s really hard, it’s … It was good to hear that maybe … you know, somewhere along the journey, you’ve done something right as well. But if I’m feeling it this morning, I can only imagine what Adam Goodes has felt all his life.”

At this moment of The Final Quarter’s Sydney Film Festival premiere in June, many of the 2000 people in the State Theatre jeered at McGuire’s voiceover; at a preview screening in February for the AFL’s Indigenous players, one of them yelled, “Cry me a fucking river!”

The Final Quarter, currently streaming on 10 play, is entirely comprised of archival material – footage of matches, AFL shows, non-AFL shows, media conferences, press clippings and radio voiceovers – spanning the last three seasons of Adam Goodes’ career, from the night in 2013 when he was racially vilified to his final match in 2015, when the most decorated Aboriginal player in the game’s history was farewelled with the same chorus of boos that had followed him since the 2014 season, the year he was named Australian of the Year.

Having asked Goodes for permission to make the film, director Ian Darling sought to assemble “what was said” and “what was heard”. This cumulative approach unearths insight not evident in isolation. We see the gradual erosion of Goodes’ mental health, from first shrugging off the boos as a perverse compliment (“sometimes it’s a mark of respect, that the opposition fans don’t want you to play well”), to taking leave from the game under their strain. And we see Goodes persistently play the proverbial ball, laying blame for racism not on any one person, but the society that conditioned them.

In its construction from existing footage of a much-filmed icon, The Final Quarter has drawn comparisons to the work of British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, whose trilogy on child geniuses and fame was completed this year with Diego Maradona, following 2015’s Amy [ Winehouse] and the Formula 1 masterpiece [Ayrton] Senna (2010). But The Final Quarter is consciously more didactic. Its employment of dictionary definitions – “racist”, “racial vilification”, “invasion”, “ape”, “war dance” – lends the film a classroom feel at times. (Darling, whose family’s fortune was made in the 19th-century grain trade, is a philanthropist more than an artist, and The Final Quarter will be freely available, upon request, to schools and sporting clubs this year.)

While Kapadia makes use of archives to show the cost of fame to youth, Darling’s starkest effect comes from how, in presenting the events in context, he lays bare who owns Aussie Rules football and who gets to give it cultural meaning. Goodes, an employee experiencing workplace harassment, faced with out-of-control fans, is left to defend himself. AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan is first silent, and then, when pressed on whether the booing is racist, he equivocates.

The booing is condoned by an array of loud non-Aboriginal voices who reject Goodes’ use of football to assert his Aboriginality. When he calls out  a teenager in the crowd for racism it is reframed as an act of “bullying” by columnists Miranda Devine and Rita Panahi. When he performs an Indigenous war dance with an imaginary spear before hostile spectators it is labelled a divisive act by columnist Andrew Bolt and just about every football commentator. And when, in the capacity of Australian of the Year, he deigns to mention the genocidal foundation of the settler-colonial state, he is criticised by all of the above, plus broadcasters Sam Newman, Paul Murray and Alan Jones.

Then there’s the man they call “Eddie Everywhere”. Not just an apple-cheeked idiot who bumbles from one gaffe to the next, McGuire emerges as the AFL’s de-­facto boss, a man whose influence across all facets of the industry renders him impervious to accountability. McGuire was commentating the match in which Goodes performed his war dance, and at half-time assumed a spokesman’s authority to denounce it (“We’ve never seen that before and I don’t think we ever want to see it again, to be perfectly honest”). What seemed to annoy McGuire most was that he wasn’t forewarned – “Like everything in life, it comes down to communication” – as if football isn’t an unpredictable athletic contest, but a scripted segment on The Footy Show.

The bluntest display of McGuire’s power comes the night of his King Kong slur. Unsanctioned, McGuire appears on Fox Footy’s AFL 360 talk show alongside Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba (then known as Harry O’Brien), who is of Congolese-Angolan and Brazilian descent. That day, Lumumba had denounced McGuire’s comments on Twitter as reflective of the pervasiveness of casual racism in Australia, and on AFL 360 he reiterates the normalising harm it causes, “coming from a man as influential as Eddie”. McGuire glares at him. They both know that Lumumba – who will be traded to the Melbourne Demons the next season and who will later reveal that his Collingwood teammates called him “Chimp” – has just sacked himself.

In the story the AFL likes to tell about itself, Australia’s Indigenous game is a forum for the advancement of First Nations people. Much vaunted is the statistic that since the national competition was established in 1990, the proportion of its players who are Indigenous has climbed to around 10 per cent, compared with 3 per cent of the wider population.

There are touchstones to this narrative, such as the moment St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar lifted his guernsey in defiance at racist taunts from Collingwood fans in 1993; and when the league instituted the first racial vilification code in Australian sport two years later (after Collingwood’s Damian Monkhorst called Essendon’s Michael Long a “black cunt”). And there are rituals, such as the annual Sir Doug Nicholls Round, named after the late Yorta Yorta footballer-statesman, which features smoking ceremonies, welcomes to country and guernseys with Indigenous motifs designed by Indigenous artists.

In practice, the AFL celebrates black Australia on white Australia’s terms. The majority of Aboriginal players, as sociologists Chris Hallinan and Stella Coram have observed, “are assigned roles in non-central playing positions that reflect racial assumptions of black athletic superiority, particularly in terms of speed”. Barely a game goes by without a commentator peddling the stereotype that a “mercurial” Indigenous small forward is “born with it”.

A 2017 University of Western Sydney–led study found such pigeonholing informs a common perception that “Aboriginal athletes are biologically more suited to playing positions characterised by pace, trickery and spontaneity, rather than those that utilise leadership acumen and intellectual skill”. The authors argued this has limited Indigenous opportunities in footy leadership: in the history of the league only one standalone captain (Port Adelaide’s Gavin Wanganeen) and two senior coaches (North Melbourne’s Barry Cable and Geelong’s Graham Farmer) have been Indigenous, and the coaches served in the pre-1990 Victorian Football League.

“Australian football culture is a white culture,” said Lumumba in Fair Game, a 2017 documentary about his own experiences with racism. And as early as 1908, prime minister Alfred Deakin was using the sport to forge an Anglo identity independent of Britain’s: “The game is Australian in its origin, Australian in its principle, and, I venture to say, essentially of Australian development. It and every expression of the sporting spirit go to make that manhood which is competent for a nation’s tasks.” Deakin’s nation was White Australia.

All this is despite the fact that key features of Aussie Rules – high-marking, no offsides, keeping the ball in the air – resemble, if not derive from, the pre-contact game of marngrook, played in the very part of Victoria where footballing founding father Tom Wills grew up.

In 2008, the league’s endorsed historian, Gillian Hibbins, dismissed such a link as a “seductive myth” and singled out Adam Goodes’ belief that it makes Aboriginal players naturally suited to Aussie Rules as “racist”. But in a statement on the day of The Final Quarter’s premiere this June, the AFL not only finally apologised to Goodes for not defending him at his career’s end, but changed its foundation narrative:

The history of the game says that Australian Rules has officially been played for 161 years. Yet, for many years before, Aboriginal history tells us that traditional forms of football were played by Australia’s first peoples all over Australia, most notably in the form of Marngrook in the Western Districts of Victoria. It is Australia’s only Indigenous football game – a game born from the ancient traditions of our country.

A swift backlash followed: “an attempt to rewrite history” and of “image management”, said sports historian Roy Hay; Tom Wills’ biographer Greg de Moore said an “evidence gap” remained.

It’s telling that Goodes was criticised for performing an Indigenous dance in 2015’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round: in the fixture that celebrates Aboriginality, you’re only allowed to celebrate Anglo-approved Aboriginality. One of McGuire’s predecessors put it most succinctly. Asked in 1993 to explain the racist abuse of Aboriginal players by Collingwood fans, club president Allan McAlister replied, “As long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them.” He clarified: “As long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be all right. That’s the key.”

Journalist Martin Flanagan has described the conciliatory stand taken by Michael Long in insisting the league outlaw the on-field racism he experienced in 1995 as the sport’s “Mandela moment”. Here was a slighted black man who quietly worked to enact change within the rules and with the public. In lobbying the AFL to create what became a non-specific law to “combat racial and religious vilification”, Long appealed to the dominant culture’s mythology of the “fair go” – and was granted it.

Compare this to Goodes. Here is an Aboriginal man who, as co-captain of the Sydney Swans, gave instead of took orders; he was the rare Indigenous footballer who played the position of utility, predicated on versatility not specialisation, influence over fleeting brilliance; he was aware that when he played on the MCG – “hallowed turf” of white Australia – he was on Wurundjeri country; he facilitated the ejection of a white visitor to Wurundjeri country who called him an “ape”; upon becoming Australian of the Year he noted the inherent “sadness” of January 26; he responded to a hostile white crowd with a black war dance. Most significantly, he didn’t ask permission.

Writing in Australian Aboriginal Studies, historian Barry Judd and ethnographer Tim Butcher have argued that by demanding Australia respect his cultural difference, Goodes took the paradigm “far beyond the battle for racial equality that characterised the experiences of Aboriginal footballers in the twentieth century” and reframed “the national game and the nation in ways that require a rethinking of Western political liberalism and echo those proposed by thinkers as diverse as John Rawls, Will Kymlicka, Larissa Behrendt and Noel Pearson”.

Put differently, when Andrew Bolt described Goodes’ war dance as a threat to reconciliation, he really meant that it was a threat to assimilation. That’s the key.

Journalist Stan Grant had spent decades in hellholes reporting on history being made abroad, only to return to Australia at the height of the “Goodes saga” to find us wrestling with our own. The Australian Dream, another new documentary about that time, was directed by Daniel Gordon and written by Grant in collaboration with Goodes.

In positioning Grant’s own life story alongside Goodes’, The Australian Dream, premiering at Melbourne International Film Festival and in cinemas August 22, treads the same terrain of Grant’s books Talking to My County (2016) and Australia Day (2019), as well as his 2016 Quarterly Essay from which the film takes its name: the incomplete project of an unreconciled Australia; the tension that results from being an excluded member of a society built on the “dream” of inclusivity.

The choice of Gordon, a British filmmaker best known for documentaries about North Korea and English football, suggests The Australian Dream is aimed at an international audience, further evidenced by the postcard shots of Australian landmarks and a general telling of both the history of Indigenous dispossession and the place of Australian Rules in Australian society. It is a more conventional documentary than The Final Quarter, with a retinue of talking heads, including Eddie McGuire and Andrew Bolt, interviewed for the project.

The Australian Dream’s original contribution comes in its perspective. As well as being written by Grant, its cinematographer is Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s son Dylan River, and the Indigenous viewpoints of Gilbert McAdam, Nicky Winmar, Michael O’Loughlin, Nova Peris and Linda Burnie contextualise what Goodes experienced with their own stories of Aboriginal excellence being met with racism.

The most valuable of these interviewees is Goodes himself. After leaving the game in 2015, and with it the public spotlight, Goodes here returns to tell his story. Growing up in country Victoria, the son of an absent white father and the Aboriginal mother he only learnt as an adult was a member of the Stolen Generations, Goodes says he “didn’t know what it was to be an Indigenous person”. He was drafted to the Swans in 1998, and the creed of team sacrifice awakened in him a yearning for identity that blossomed into an embracing of his Aboriginality.

In sport – society’s supposed great leveller – Goodes found his career and his voice, promising himself he would call out the racism that he hadn’t in high school, be it from a 13-year-old at the MCG or from Eddie McGuire, who in this film ascribes responsibility for his King Kong “mistake” on too little sleep. Goodes posits the more plausible explanation that McGuire temporarily forgot he was on air and not at the pub being casually racist with his mates. “You’re not my friend,” the player told McGuire when he phoned to apologise. But his success became his burden, and Goodes says he retired to deny the racists their stage: “I didn’t want to give people that platform anymore.”

Why, Andrew Bolt asks in The Australian Dream, should Australians take responsibility for events that happened long before they were born? We might equally ask why they take credit for events that happened long before they were born, from Glenrowan to Gallipoli. As historian Jenny Hocking and researcher Nell Reidy have observed, “Such singularity reflects a conceptual position in which the settler-colonial experience is the only perspective from which history is, and can be, told.” They were writing about the readiness to reject the “marngrook thesis”, but their words apply equally to the readiness to reject the perspective of the invaded.

For all this, The Australian Dream is in the end hopeful, presenting Goodes as a sacrificial lamb necessary for the process of national healing. “People have to suffer for us to get better,” says Grant. He tells us he senses a newfound national maturity, and that the true Australia didn’t boo. On what evidence, he doesn’t say. We are shown the AFL’s Round 18, 2015, when Goodes omitted himself from the Swans team to play the Adelaide Crows, and, amid the waving of Aboriginal flags, commentator Dwayne Russell said, “Adam Goodes, if you’re watching, everyone wants you back.”

I was at Goodes’ return game the following week, when the Swans played the Geelong Cats at the latter’s Kardinia Park. I am a white Australian, and in the crowd’s reaction I didn’t hear what Grant says black Australia did: the “howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival”. But I heard a smattering of boos every time Goodes neared the ball, and after telling my friend that at least they weren’t pervasive, I heard a woman scoff that “people are just doing what they’re told”. I heard her say she was sick of being called a racist, and I heard her friend say Goodes should be grateful he can now enter a pub. I heard a man yell “WHERE’S YA SPEAR NOW?” when Goodes fumbled the ball, and I heard another yell “THROW YA BOOMERANG” when he chased an opponent.

And in the dying stages of the game, I heard the majority of 27,910 spectators howl, jeer and hoot with delight when Adam Goodes, who had become a “controversial” and “polarising” figure for asserting his right to cultural difference rooted in irrefutable historical fact, was tackled and penalised for holding the ball.

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars.


Adam Goodes. Photograph by Phil Hillyard / Newspix

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