In 1947 a black man named Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, ending more than half a century of racial segregation in Major League Baseball. Dodgers president Branch Rickey chose their first black player carefully. He wanted someone who could put up with racial abuse; someone “with guts enough not to fight back”. Robinson didn’t disappoint, stoically withstanding the baiting and taunts and winning the respect of fans, teammates and ultimately the broader League. Robinson conducted himself with utmost dignity, despite being treated with utmost indignity that first season even by Dodgers’ players and fans.
For decades, black sportspeople have taken the same advice Rickey gave Robinson – keep your head down, stay in your box, focus on the game, ignore racial abuse, don’t take the bait and, above all, don’t give anyone reason to criticise you.
Until recently, racial sledging of Indigenous Australians in sport was accepted and normal. As a child playing sport I was called ‘wog’, ‘black c---’, ‘darkie’ and ‘abo’. I was told to turn the other cheek. Professional players learned to ignore the taunts and focus on the game, essentially having to work to taunts like ‘nigger’, ‘black bastard’ and ‘go sniff your petrol.’ If a player cracked, with violence or unexplained absences, they faced reprimand and reputational damage. Opponents exploited this weakness as a legitimate tactic.
The mid-90s saw a turning point in Aussie Rules when Nicky Winmar and Michael Long refused to turn the other cheek any more. After copping racial abuse from the Collingwood cheer squad all match, Winmar famously raised his jumper, pointed at his skin and declared ‘I’m black and proud to be black’. Two years later a Collingwood player racially abused Long. He pressed the AFL to deal with it and implement a Code of Conduct.
Winmar and Long are heroes, credited with changing the game. The 20th anniversary of Winmar’s gesture was marked by an exhibition at the National Sports Museum, a book and a documentary. But at the time they faced criticism and sparked a heated debate about what’s fair game on the field. Collingwood captain Tony Shaw said:
“I’d make a racist comment every week if I thought it would help win the game... If they react, you know you’ve got ‘em ...”
Club President Allan McAlister said:
“it is the nature of sport, the nature of human beings and the real issue is not racism, but ... trying to put the boy off on the day ... It is tactics used by one club or one boy against his opponent and it goes both ways.”
I’ve never understood racial sledging as a sporting tactic. You should be able to crush a player with skill. Sledging requires no skill.
It’s hard to explain the damage racial abuse causes. It’s consuming, crippling and takes away your sense of worth. It instills a deep sense of shame. It cowers you. Most Indigenous players have experienced it since birth; it’s etched on their psyche before they ever take the field.
Look deeper and you see glimpses of sledging’s bigger toll. Three years before his famous stand, Winmar was suspended for half the season for kicking and eye gouging Dermot Brereton. Brereton later admitted he provoked Winmar with a deliberate tactic of constant racial sledging all game. Brereton wrote:
“We were always aware that two of the stars of league football in the early '90s could be put off their game with considerable consequence. They were West Coast's Chris Lewis and St Kilda's Nicky Winmar. Only two or three players were given the scope to verbally belittle these two players. I was one of those players. And yes, it was racially based. I have since apologised to both.”
In 2013 I saw signs of real change. The incident involved a 13 year old in the crowd abusing Adam Goodes with one of the most insulting slurs you can level at a black man. Collingwood President Eddie McGuire later re-delivered the same slur in an attempted joke.
Two things struck me, however. The first was Goodes’ immediate protest; no hesitating or second guessing himself. The second was the overwhelming support for Goodes and condemnation of the conduct by mainstream Australia.
But the two years since show Australia still grappling with the intersection of racial prejudice and sporting rivalry. Resentment of Goodes began to simmer. People pitied a naive 13 year old being heavied by security. Yet Goodes had no way of knowing anything about her and wasn’t responsible for ground security’s handling of it.when he called out her slur to security. He was genuinely gutted by the taunt; more so when he found out it came from a child. He called on people to give her support.
Then Goodes was named 2014 Australian of the Year – deservingly, given his contribution to sport and community. But the sniping began. Miranda Devine claimed he’d been ‘rewarded for victimising a powerless 13-year-old girl from a disadvantaged background’. Rubbish. Goodes’ professional achievements in his field and his charitable activities are easily on a par with Ita Buttrose (Media Icon – 2013), Geoffrey Rush (Oscar-winning actor - 2012), Lee Kernaghan (Country Music Legend - 2008) and any of the other past winners from the sports and entertainment industries.
In a very personal acceptance speech, Goodes reflected on his struggle to celebrate Australia Day “because of the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people”. As hard as those words are for non-Indigenous Australians to hear, they reflect how most Indigenous people feel, whether we’ve reached an inner peace with those feelings (as I have) or not. In fact, that same day I made similar statements in a speech at the Yabun Festival.
So now it is a ‘thing’ to boo and heckle Adam Goodes whenever the ball goes near him. Some commentators are bending over backwards to convince people the ritual booing has nothing to do with race – that it’s caused by everything from Goodes’ playing style to the crowd being afraid of an invisible spear.
Enough doublethink.The ritual booing of Goodes clearly evolved from a series of occasions where he confronted racial issues and made people uncomfortable. Sit in the stands you’ll hear not just booing, but racial abuse. It’s punishment for not conforming to the Jackie Robinson model; he didn’t stay in his box and he didn’t turn the other cheek.
As it happens, nor did Robinson. In 1952, he accused the Yankees of prejudice against black players. He was right. The club held out against racial integration for longer than most clubs, their general manager reportedly saying he’d never let a black man wear a Yankee uniform and Yankee fans would be ‘offended to have to sit with niggers’.
But Robinson had stepped out of his box and people weren’t happy. “There is nothing of the sort in the Yankees organization” said the Yankees club. “Robinson should be a player, not a Crusader’ screamed a headline. A teammate later accused him of not being grateful enough to baseball for the opportunities it gave him. Later he only just scraped into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In retirement Robinson became active in the civil rights movement and worked to counter poverty and homelessness. He spoke freely and frankly and sometimes rocked the boat. He died in 1972. Today, he’s commemorated every year on Jackie Robinson Day when all players wear the #42 on their jerseys. People are proud of the change he spearheaded and cheer his memory. But, in the words of the Washington Post, there was no cheering for Jackie Robinson the social activist.
For Goodes’ sake I hope the ritual booing stops. But if it doesn’t, he should feel no less proud of his achievements. And Australians should be no less proud of him.
Sledging takes its toll
31 July 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine