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The land we play on: equality doesn’t mean justice

Footballer Adam Goodes was daring to speak of things that many Australians would prefer to be ignorant of. AAP/Dean Lewins

The land we play on: equality doesn’t mean justice

Sport, we’re told, lies at the heart of what it means to be Australian. But what in reality does this mean? The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the role and place of sport in Australian life: how players, administrators, coaches and spectators are adjusting to new societal expectations around behaviour, gender, race, violence, corruption, transparency, governance and many other concerns.


The beguiling promise of sport is that everyone is treated equally: that it transcends politics through meritocracy. Fair play and a level playing field remain catchwords. Yet who determines whether the play is fair? Is the playing field really fair? And on whose land do the playing fields rest?

The answers to these questions point not only to the limits of Australian sporting meritocracy, but also to the underlying racism in, and whiteness of, Australian sport. While the dominant narratives of sport celebrate the diversity of those who play and watch sport, those in charge tend to be white, straight-identifying men.

These men do not, as a rule, ask questions as to how to diversify decision-making and resource allocation within sports. Or of what it means that their arenas and fields rest on lands belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who did not consent to British takeover and rule. Instead, these men regulate and police the conduct of athletes and teams, patrolling and constraining sporting spaces in their efforts to maximise profits.

This situation is indicative of “whiteness” – a theoretical term that refers to a set of political, social and economic values that emerged from industrial Europe.

Whiteness, then, is not solely about skin colour, but rather a set of beliefs epitomised by notions such as “white culture and science is superior to all others”, that “money is of very high priority”, that “of course it’s normal for white people to be in positions of power and others not to be”, that “black peoples are in jail more because they are more criminal”, and then, the biggest myth of all: that “we treat everyone equally, so why do minorities always want special treatment?”

In short, whiteness is where white people, particularly men, set the social, political and economic rules of society based on their own values, and then tell everyone else they can access that system equally. The effect is one whereby mostly white men hide the implicit power they have built into the system, and then tell others it is a system of meritocracy.

Not all white men and people subscribe to this fallacy, but they all benefit from it. Whiteness’ brilliance is to pretend it wants to “include” everyone else under the sworn goals of diversity or, in the case of Aboriginal peoples, reconciliation, so long as they adopt the rules white men have established. Black, “other” and multicultural communities can have whiteness too; they can easily become acculturated into it.

Something, however, always escapes. If whiteness has been a dominant force in recent Australian history, it is also something that has been continually resisted and contested – which brings us back to sports with all their strict rules, ambiguous interpretations and necessary uncertainty.

Much of the compelling power, beauty and at times horror of sport rests in the unknowability as to exactly what will unfold in each contest. Forms of merit such as skill and application are on display, but so too are elements of chance and accident, while the possibility of both shock and awe remain vital to our interest in these games.

Many of our treasured sporting stories tend to focus on those who have triumphed against great odds. Nevertheless it is often the tales that are neglected that are the most revealing of the white lens that frames so much of Australian sport.

Collective forgetting

In October 2015, the AFL itself drew attention to one such instance of collective forgetting.

“Sir Doug Nicholls,” noted Gillon McLachlan, the AFL’s chief executive, “is the great untold story of Australian football.”

It was a statement of considerable, and unfortunately emblematic, hubris, for the AFL is no small innocent group that had somehow just discovered a startling elision of the past. It is a sporting monolith that long ago followed the lead of the US National Football League in considering itself as primarily a media-content organisation that creates and sells stories.

As such, the AFL has invested funds in commemorating other key figures in ways that most cultural organisations can only dream of. While the AFL belatedly took the advice of its Indigenous Advisory Council and named its Indigenous Round after Nicholls, it has consistently decided not to include Nicholls in the Australian Football Hall of Fame.

It is a striking omission. The Hall of Fame is supposed to recognise those “who have made significant contributions” to Australian rules football since the game’s inception. Candidates are considered on the “basis of record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship and character”. Players, coaches, umpires, administrators and members of the media are all eligible, and those adjudged to have changed the game “significantly for the better” are inducted as “legends”.

Nicholls was a pioneering figure as a player, coach and administrator. He was the first publicly recognised Aboriginal man to star in Victoria at the highest levels of the game.

From 1927 he played for five seasons for Northcote in the Victorian Football Association, then only a marginally less elite competition than the Victorian Football League (VFL). During this time Nicholls won a premiership, was best afield in a grand final, won a best-and-fairest award and was the first Aboriginal player selected to represent the VFA in interstate competition.

In 1932 Fitzroy lured Nicholls to play in the VFL with a substantial salary and an off-season position as the curator of their oval. Nicholls would play 54 games for Fitzroy, and in 1934 became the first Aboriginal player selected to represent the VFL in interstate competition.

In 1937 Nicholls returned to Northcote, where he played two final seasons. Later, in another pioneering development, Nicholls became Northcote’s coach while he also organised and coached the first Aboriginal All Stars football team and was chairman “of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation that conducted National Aboriginal Football Carnivals in all capital cities”.

All this is more than just a significant contribution. Nicholls changed Australian rules football for the better – first in Victoria, and then around Australia.

As the AFL’s former head of diversity Jason Mifsud noted, if Nicholls had done all of this in the US he would be spoken of in the same terms as Jackie Robinson – the pioneering African-American baseball player who most Americans are taught about at school. Instead, Nicholls has fallen out of the consciousness of white Australia despite great achievements at sport and even greater achievements outside of sport.

Doug Nicholls was a pioneering figure as a player, coach and administrator. Nicholls Family Archive

Which histories are told and valued?

This is not unusual for Australia. Which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figures from more than 50 years ago are household names across Australia? Not those who fought for their freedom like Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheener or Yagan, nor those whose bodies were later displayed in public museums such as Trugernanner, nor those who continually advocated for change such as Nicholls’ uncle, William Cooper.

It is not that history is disregarded by white Australia, but more a question of which histories are told and valued. The Australians who died in the first world war are valorised for the way they suffered and sacrificed their lives to defend “our way of life”, whereas the past violence and discrimination against Australia’s Indigenous peoples is brushed aside as “something they need to get over”.

The SBS journalist Scott McIntyre was sacked for criticising the nationalistic celebrations of ANZAC Day, while basketball player Alice Kunek was excused by many for blackening her face because she “wasn’t aware” of the racist history of such blackfacing. Whiteness makes some stories sacrosanct, while others are to be ignored with no consequences.

Such relationships with our past greatly undermine the possibility of a true meritocracy. The decision to exclude Nicholls only makes sense if the committee were dissatisfied with Nicholls’ playing record of “only” 54 games for Fitzroy in the VFL, the competition that would eventually evolve in the AFL.

Yet the reason Nicholls initially starred in the VFA, not the VFL, was because he was at first excluded from doing so on the basis of his race. When Nicholls originally arrived in Melbourne, he trained with the Carlton VFL side. The Carlton players, however, complained that Nicholls smelled and would not let him into the changing rooms. It has taken until this year for Carlton to acknowledge the wrong and to invite members of Nicholls’ family to its ground.

To downplay the achievements of Nicholls in the VFL is to ignore the unlevel playing field he was up against. To not include him in the Hall of Fame also means that his more-than-impressive record as a coach and administrator was not valued; that the tireless work he did promoting Indigenous involvement in Australian rules football was not seen as a truly significant contribution to the game.

The immense contribution of Nicholls can only not count enough if the history of Australian rules football is largely a white history, where VFL premierships and medals count for much more than triumphing over exclusion and systematic discrimination, and where contributions to “the game” is taken to mean contributions only to certain elite (male) competitions.

In neglecting to celebrate Nicholls – and in so doing avoiding engaging with its own difficult history of racist exclusion – the AFL also missed a chance to show that despite the white lens that shapes Australian sport, it can still provide spaces for transformation. For, through football, Nicholls became a much-loved figure.

In 1934 Melbourne’s Argus newspaper declared that it:

… is safe to say that a more popular player never wore football boots in Australia.

A year later another Argus profile commended Nicholls as:

… one of the most gentlemanly and most popular sportsmen in Australia. He is a model for any boy to copy.

In avoiding the history of its own racism, the AFL had also neglected the opportunity to tell a story that pointed to the way Australian rules football created the space in the 1930s for an Aboriginal man to be celebrated for both his sporting deeds and gentlemanly conduct.

Ignorance here is no excuse. Public calls for Nicholls to be included in the Hall of Fame date back to at least 2008. Nicholls has subsequently been nominated with a strong case put forward that the (white male) committee has somehow seen as not substantial enough to induct him.

Instead the AFL is now recognising Nicholls on its own terms – as a pioneering Aboriginal player, coach and administrator who was not quite important enough to be in the Hall of Fame. This act of recognition typifies the AFL’s approach to diversity: the very white response of including others but of not fundamentally levelling the playing field.

The AFL has invested considerable resources in the project of “including” Indigenous footballers, in particular through its marquee Indigenous Round. During this round each team wears a special guernsey featuring Indigenous artwork, while Indigenous players act as team captains for the coin toss.

The games often feature performances by Indigenous artists and children, and the showcase Dreamtime at the ’G game between Essendon and Richmond is preceded by the (Michael) Long walk for reconciliation.

These were important symbolic developments. But were they enough? In other words, did they change the terms of power?

In the US, Professor Cornel West has brilliantly argued that it would do African-Americans little good to simply try to get black people into positions of power in the white political system that is the US, if that’s all they do.

He argues that the US has a black president, a black secretary for homeland security and a black attorney-general, yet black Americans are routinely murdered and brutalised by over-zealous police, resulting in the Black Lives Matter movement.

West argues the task is not simply to get black people into positions of power, important though that is, but also to fundamentally change the rules of power and how the system operates, so as to be more equal for women, people of colour and LGBTIQ people.

Similarly, the disability movement’s sensible goal is not simply to “include” more disabled people in parliament or in playing sport, for example, but to make sure they can physically gain access to the halls of power, to sporting fields and that they can fundamentally change the rules of the game – to literally and figuratively level the playing field.

Nicholls had followed a similar maxim. In his own lifetime Nicholls received arguably the greatest forms of recognition that white Australia could offer. He was the first Aboriginal to be knighted and the first to be made the governor of a state.

Nicholls’ focus, however, was not on such tokens of white appreciation and inclusion, but rather on campaigning for the rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. He knew that his “people” hungered for inspiring stories of resistance and triumph, and that news of his deeds was read around much of the country. And he continually spoke up for the need for justice and fair treatment for the first inhabitants – and owners – of the land.

In 1935, when Nicholls returned from playing for the VFL’s representative team, he spoke to the press not only of football but of the “tragic” conditions that “some of my people” had to live under, and emphasised his intention to agitate for the authorities to address such issues.

Australian rules football gave Nicholls a public platform. And for the rest of his life he used this platform over and over again to campaign for the rights of Indigenous Australians.

In 1938, during the first national Day of Mourning that protested Australia Day and the associated celebrations of the 150 years of colonisation that followed invasion, Nicholls articulated a vision for equality that was tied to the agency and empowerment of Australia’s First Peoples. A vision where they were no longer “bossed by white people” but could “hold our own with others if given a chance”.

Perhaps it was Nicholls’ continual insistence on the need for Indigenous rights that has led to him no longer being included in (white) Australia’s popular memory. For he returned, over and over again, to those aspects of our past that we as a nation remain uncomfortable with thinking about, let alone discussing.

Black Americans are routinely murdered and brutalised by over-zealous police, resulting in the Black Lives Matter movement. Reuters/Adam Bettcher

The Goodes controversy

More than three-quarters of a century later another Aboriginal man was given a public platform through football – Adam Goodes.

The dual premiership player and dual Brownlow medallist was named Australian of the Year in 2014 for his work in both empowering young Indigenous Australians and in combating racism. It was another act of recognition, of inclusion.

But Goodes, like Nicholls before him, wanted to foster change. His aim, as he noted in his acceptance speech on Australia Day, was to work to eliminate racism in Australia.

Adam Goodes’ Australian of the Year acceptance speech.

Goodes later condemned the way John Pilger’s damning documentary Utopia – which detailed the continuing discrimination faced by Australia’s Indigenous peoples – seemed to be eliciting no response from (white) Australia:

Frankly, as a proud Adnyamathanha man, I find the silence about Utopia in mainstream Australia disturbing and hurtful. As an Australian, I find it embarrassing. I also see an irony, for Utopia is about telling the story of this silence.

In 1968, the anthropologist W.H. Stanner had referred to this national “cult of forgetfulness” as the “Great Australian Silence”. When Goodes spoke of the continuing silence in 2014, the result was an ever-increasing barrage of hostility.

It began with defensive anger in the tabloid press and on talkback radio, and then in the 2014 grand final a considerable number of Hawthorn supporters began channelling their intense dislike into boos every time Goodes touched the ball. When the AFL season began again in March of 2015, so did the booing. The longstanding art of decrying the actions of an opposition player had been turned into an act of racial hatred.

It was as if Goodes had broken the contract of whiteness. He had been included – been recognised with a great honour – and instead of meekly accepting it and being quiet, Goodes was daring to speak of things that many Australians would prefer to be ignorant of.

Critics deemed him outspoken, treating him like an upstart who didn’t know his place. Australians of the Year, black or white or other, are supposed to accept the “rules of the game”, the rules of whiteness. They are supposed to accept the underlying power differential and contribute warm and fuzzies to the national character and sporting religion like any other good pilgrim.

The fans booed and hissed and hollered for months, fuelled by racist shock jocks and a faux innocent media, while the AFL stood uncomfortably by, hoping it would fade away without having to intervene and get its hands dirty. The pretence lay in the notion that its hands were clean.

Meanwhile, the media characterised the tempest as a “debate”, as if it was normal to harass and attack an Aboriginal person for attempting to draw attention to the past and present realities of race relations in Australia.

Then came the Indigenous Round in the last week of May. The AFL somehow proclaimed its commitment to the cause of reconciliation and Indigenous rights while refusing to intervene in the large-scale harassment of its most prominent Indigenous player.

As fate would have it, Indigenous Round began on the night of Friday, May 21, with Sydney hosting Carlton at the SCG. Although Goodes was playing at his home ground, groups of Carlton fans could still be heard booing every time he touched the ball.

When Goodes kicked a goal in the second quarter, he celebrated by performing a war dance developed by the “Flying Boomerangs” – an Indigenous team selected to compete in the Australian under-16 championships. The dance ended with Goodes miming the throwing of a spear in the direction of some of the Carlton barrackers who had been booing him.

Adam Goodes’ ‘war dance’ celebration.

It was a statement of cultural pride and sovereignty. Gary Murray, a grandson of Nicholls, has often noted that:

One of the strongest symbols of your land ownership is where you bury your dead.

Performing a cultural dance is another strong traditional sign of connection to, and ownership of, land. Goodes, then, was using the Indigenous Round to proclaim his connection to the land, to assert his agency as something more than a figure of entertainment – and now abuse – for white Australia.

It could also be read as a demand for justice, a demand for a response to those whose racist hate was booming through games without any significant intervention.

Instead, the dance was read as an act of provocation, of threatened violence. While the AFL stayed largely silent, a parade of former players – who just happened to be white – condemned Goodes for both being too soft to ignore the hate being directed at him, and for “intimidating” fans with an “imaginary” spear.

Many had made a living by being enforcers, by physically hurting opponents. Yet they seemed to fear what an imaginary spear might do. In a response that so beautifully and horrifically characterised Australian society’s racism and whiteness, a cultural dance performed during the Indigenous Round that was supposed to celebrate Indigenous culture was deemed a step too far.

The implicit rule of whiteness is that demonstrations of Indigenous cultures are acceptable only when they keep white values and power intact. Whiteness means “we like your art and your sport when they do not threaten us”. “We like your art and sport, but not you.” “We like your culture and sport if we can control and consume it, not if you seek to take control of it.” “We like to include you, but not share power.”

It brings to mind the unwittingly revealing comments that the then-president of Collingwood, Allan McAlister, made in 1993 when defending the Collingwood supporters who had racially abused Nicky Winmar and Gilbert McAdam:

As long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them … As long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be all right. That’s the key.

Goodes might have only thrown an imaginary spear, but perhaps the strong white men were right to fear it, because it challenged the values of whiteness that their power is based on. It was not the “right kind of culture” because it challenged their own white cultural authority, showing that the place of their strength, the ground they had played on, was not necessarily theirs.

Part of this statement of sovereignty was already apparent in the pride with which Goodes bore himself on and off the field. Academic Liz Conor correctly identifies that part of the vitriol reserved for Goodes was not merely because of his stance on public racism, culture and social justice, but that he was a successful and ultimately sexy version of Aboriginal manhood.

Images of Aboriginal men as destitute, overweight and criminal seem to ease the Australian consciousness into believing “it’s all their own fault”, whereas images of successful, sexy, intelligent Aboriginal men are an affront to normalised white power, control and denial. Aboriginal men must never be allowed to be successful and sexy on their own terms. Otherwise, they are deemed “sexy and dangerous”.

St Kilda players Nicky Winmar and Gilbert McAdam return to Victoria Park, where the pair were racially abused. AAP/Hamish Blair

Finally, an apology?

In this respect tennis player Serena Williams receives similar vitriol to Goodes.

Williams is said to be an “inconsistent” player when she loses and a “powerful” winner when she triumphs – playing to subtle-yet-powerful narratives about people of colour being unreliable and furtive, and being sex objects but not sexy. She is “sexy and dangerous”, but she must never be allowed to be a proudly black woman on her own terms.

If Williams complains of the way she is frequently hated, she is seen as “another black asking for special treatment”.

A young Lleyton Hewitt was quickly forgiven in Australia for implying that a black linesman foot-faulted him because he was biased in favour of Hewitt’s opponent James Blake. Yet imagine the response in Australia if Blake had argued that the other 99% of linesmen who were white were favouring Hewitt.

This suspicion of dangerous darkness and forgivable whiteness had a further parallel in cricket, where the crassly sexist behaviour of Chris Gayle received a level of opprobrium never directed at Shane Warne, whose public pursuit of women is read as an entertaining example of good white Aussie virility.

Warne himself criticised Goodes for trying to “con” the umpires for free kicks – an impressively hypocritical accusation when a significant aspect of Warne’s bowling craft lay in convincing umpires to give him LBW decisions.

Warne’s attack further escalated the hatred being directed at Goodes. And still the AFL remained silent. The AFL Commission itself was torn, with some members arguing that Goodes deserved the booing, others uncomfortable with the booing but believing that it was innocent, and only a minority pushing for an intervention.

When a response finally came two months later it was initiated not by the AFL, but by an Indigenous teammate of Goodes, Lewis Jetta, who protested the continuing booing of Goodes with a war dance in his home state of Western Australia when Sydney played the West Coast Eagles in Perth.

Lewis Jetta’s ‘war dance’.

In the ensuing furore a distraught Goodes took some time off from football and the AFL at last pleaded with fans not to boo him. Yet not only did the AFL not name the booing as racist, they did what most mainstream white organisations in Australia do – maintain their power at the expense of Aboriginal social justice.

They reverted to the inclusion narrative. They defaulted to a stance where apparently the issue was not the booing, but Goodes’ experience of it – he felt it was racist and so, to include him, the fans needed to stop booing. Once again the responsibility for racism was placed in Aboriginal hands, rather than white people taking responsibility for their own actions.

What good was “inclusion” to Goodes?

The AFL lost a decisive opportunity to push past the easier, warm and fuzzy “inclusion” or reconciliation narrative. They lost an opportunity to make a stand for social justice and equity. They were unwilling to make a stand that risked alienating a core group of supporters, that risked reducing their profit margin and risked their financial (white) power.

At the beginning of the 2016 season the AFL offered a half-baked and way-too-late apology to Goodes. This appears to be the result of some soul-searching, but one could also be forgiven for seeing this as simply a public relations exercise – as keeping their “inclusion” narrative intact. One of the ethical implications of apologising is that the perpetrator stops the abuse.

Have they changed the rules of their game? Have they interrogated their whiteness, racism and power? Have they truly levelled the playing field? No. Not yet. Stopping the abuse in this case would mean changing the underlying assumptions of whiteness that the AFL’s power feeds on.

The crassly sexist behaviour of cricketer Chris Gayle received a level of opprobrium never directed at Shane Warne. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

What will the AFL do now?

The tragedy of the situation is that very few organisations in Australia have the potential of the AFL to radically impact on race relations. They could, if they wished, tell stories about the past and the present realities of race relations in Australia that sparked engagement and change with regards to these issues that our nation so desperately needs.

Stories of the racism that Nicholls experienced and observed, including the way his sister at the age of 16 was taken away against her will by police to work as a domestic servant. Of the apartheid-like conditions in which Nicky Winmar grew up in the Western Australian town of Pingelly. Of the way both of Gilbert McAdam’s parents were taken away from their families as children.

Of the way these traumas are passed down generations. Of the way discrimination has been resisted and sovereignty sought, over and over again.

As a corporation concerned with making money off a national story of sporting prowess, how will the AFL acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories in a social justice rather than an inclusion narrative? How will they acknowledge that Aboriginal people have shaped and reshaped the way the game is played? How will they acknowledge they stuffed up, and genuinely seek to make things right? How will they acknowledge the land they play on?

In March 2016, the AFL’s first female commissioner, Sam Mostyn, ended her term with the organisation. Mostyn worked hard to bring about cultural change that began the process of transforming the terms of power. Yet she left regretting the:

… AFL’s failure to transform its distinctly white, male hierarchy.

Not only were the game’s administrators still mainly white men, there is still yet to be a permanent Indigenous AFL commissioner. If the AFL is serious in its professed commitment to Indigenous Australia then it needs to provide clear strategies for a redistribution of power it invests its own funds in, rather than acting only if it receives government funds for assistance in something it regards as beyond its core business.

What strategy does the AFL have and what funds will it invest in making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share decision-making and power in the game? How will it ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participate at commission, managerial, coach, administrator and umpire levels? How will it try to achieve the level of rugby league, which had two Aboriginal captains in its most recent grand final and has created more pathways for Indigenous leadership than the AFL?

And why, when the AFL has followed America’s NFL in developing a salary cap, draft and trade period, has it not also followed the NFL in mandating for at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for every major coaching and management position?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contribute enormously to many of the sports that are at the centre of Australia’s cultural life. Their connection to the land they play on goes back tens of thousands of years.

Yet until we see a marked change in the stories that are told about these sports and this land, together with a shift from inclusion to social justice, the rules of the game and the national story of Australian sport will remain very, very white.


You can read others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

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