I heard the news of Adam Goodes’ retirement early last Friday morning, 14 hours removed from Sydney. As a Canadian and a relatively recent convert to the joys of Australian Rules football, I was surprised by my degree of despondency over the news. It wasn’t so much that his playing career had come to an end, as all such careers must. Rather, it’s how the circumstances surrounding his departure have resulted in a tragically missed opportunity for the country and a stain on its image that will take years to remove.
Since I was introduced to the sport by a couple of Swans tragics and the sensational 2012 Grand Final (which also happened to feature a fine performance by a fellow Canadian, Mike Pyke), I’ve talked up the game incessantly to fellow Canadians. I’ve even created a course at my home university comparing Canadian and Australian society through the lens of ice hockey and Australian Rules football. At a screening of Port Adelaide’s Round 21 upset of Hawthorn, one of my colleagues, witnessing for the first time the skill displayed by these sublimely gifted athletes, wondered, “Why isn’t this more popular in North America?”
Through all of this, including 5:30 am appointments with Friday Night Footy (great way to start your day when your team wins), I’ve learned more and more about the rules and history of the game, and in so doing, about the history and culture of Australia. Since Canada and Australia are so similar, it’s also led me to reflect on my own society, and hockey’s place in it.
From my side of the ocean, the Australian Football League and Australian Rules football stand as beacons of what Australia and Australians are capable of at their best. In a world of global commercial homogenization, maintaining a thriving indigenous sport is a huge accomplishment. Coming from North America, where sports franchises are the playthings of multi-billionaires, to be moved the moment a given profit margin cannot be maintained, it’s inspiring to see the deep connection between communities and their teams. The AFL is also light years ahead of the National Hockey League in terms of women’s representation in coaching, umpiring and administrative positions, and in the stands, even if true equality is still far off.
Then there’s the game itself. To this Canadian’s eye, it’s an incredibly graceful and exciting spectacle, the passing no less than the kicking and the tackling. It’s physical without being violent (give or take a Brian Lake choke hold) and matches hockey for speed and creativity. Even Bruce McAvaney’s commentary, which I understand drives some Australians to distraction, is so inventive that it never fails to yield some Facebook-worthy phrasing to confuse, amuse and intrigue my Canadian friends.
Beyond that, there’s the positive role the AFL attempts to play in the wider society. The changes resulting from Nicky Winmar’s gesture and Michael Long’s stand for basic respect speak volumes not only about the AFL, but also Australians’ willingness to confront hard realities about the darkest parts of their history. Themed rounds, for example, are foreign to me as a Canadian, as is a league taking a strong political position on anything remotely controversial, such as Indigenous rights or multiculturalism.
Critics might see these rounds as tokenism, but they also send a powerful message about the importance of unity and reconciliation to a country (like Canada) still scarred by the sins of genocide and racism. In Canada, where politeness is often a mask for the societal ills we dare not acknowledge, such candour is alien.
Which brings us to Adam Goodes’ retirement. I can’t think of a single hockey player who can match his record and the eloquence with which he promotes his message of recognition, reconciliation and equality (for all the disdain he cops, Goodes is preaching a pretty generous and compassionate message).
That the racist (and with the clarity offered by distance, the booing is obviously racist) jeering continued into the final moments of his final match is, for someone who sees in Australia hints of how things could be better in Canada, profoundly disheartening. Despite the stand taken by his fellow players, captains, rival teams and the AFL itself, the booing continued. And while it may not have driven Goodes out of the game (though it came close), it certainly coloured his leave-taking in a way that nobody – champion or otherwise – deserves.
The loss is not Goodes’, but Australia’s. Nobody can take Goodes’ accomplishments away from him, including his courageous stands for respect and against racism. Rather, this year of booing shows that, despite two decades of sustained efforts by the AFL, and by the commendable actions and words of our sports heroes and leaders, there remains a substantial racist hard core amongst AFL barrackers, and thus in Australian society as a whole. While Goodes’ retirement will end the booing (for now), it also means Australia no longer has the chance to make it right, to emerge from the pain of the past few months a better country, to serve as an inspiration to others as it did with its response to Winmar and Long.
From Canada, where we deal, more quietly, with the same issues, this failure is disheartening. If socially acceptable racial vilification can still occur – toward a champion and humanitarian, of all people – after sustained decades of anti-racism work by leading institutions and people, what hope is there for the next Adam Goodes? The tragedy is Australia’s, and Canada’s.