‘The Final Quarter’ Is A Painful Reminder Of The Racism Beating At The Heart Of Australia

The new Adam Goodes doco is compulsory viewing for all Australians.

Adam Goodes

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“People are not booing you, Adam, because you’re an Aboriginal,” snarls Sam Newman, staring down the barrel of the camera. “They’re booing you because you’re acting like a jerk.” So begins The Final Quarter, a gut-wrenching documentary about one of the most shameful chapters in Australian sporting history.

The footage, from a 2015 episode of The Footy Show, is the first slice in a seemingly never-ending montage that drives home in devastating detail what happens to a black man in Australia when he dares to be proud of his culture, and calls out racism for what it is.

The man, of course, was Adam Goodes, an Adnyamathanha and Narungga man and one of the greatest Australian Rules Footballers of all time.

Three hundred and seventy-two career games over 17 years, more than any other Indigenous player. Two Brownlow medals, the highest individual honour in the sport. Two premierships. Three Best and Fairest awards. Four All-Australian selections.

A member of the Indigenous Team of the Century. Off the field, he was named 2014 Australian of the Year for his work as “a great role model and advocate for the fight against racism”.

Yet it was that advocacy, that desire to be a role model, that saw Goodes hounded from the game he loved.

Ian Darling’s film is about the boos and the jeers and the vicious slurs that marred the final three years of Goodes’ playing career. But it’s also about the abject failure of an organisation to take a stand and fight for the values it purports to hold.

It’s about cruel, ignorant bullies in the media who didn’t think twice about ripping a man’s life to shreds in order to make a point. And it’s about a nation that is as much in denial about its racist present as it is about its racist past.

Proud To Be Aboriginal

The Final Quarter is made up entirely of archival material, with Darling combining match-day footage with clips from press conferences, news broadcasts and AFL panel shows, as well as newspaper headlines and snippets from talkback radio.

It’s a method that calls to mind Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a film that’s rightly regarded as one of the greatest sporting documentaries of all time precisely because it grips you regardless of whether you know anything about sport. Kapadia used the life of the Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna to tell a story about pursuing the thing that you love.

Darling uses what happened to Goodes to tell a story about people who would rather tear someone down because it’s easier than confronting an ugly truth about themselves. You don’t have to care about football for this movie to hit home.

This tale will feel distressingly familiar, because it’s one that plays out in this country time and time again.

After opening with Newman and The Footy Show, Darling jumps back to 2012, to an interview Goodes gave on Fox Footy’s Open Mike. The Swans co-captain speaks candidly about what it’s like to experience racism, whether it’s on the playground, the street or the MCG.

It doesn’t matter how successful you are, Goodes explains. Ignorance and hatred are always there. Even so, he seems cautiously optimistic about how far the AFL has come on the issue. In hindsight, it’s almost funny — or at least it would be if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

Over the next 75 minutes, The Final Quarter reveals just how misplaced that optimism was.

We watch Goodes point out a young Collingwood fan to security during a game in 2013 after she calls him an ape. We watch Collingwood president Eddie McGuire personally apologise to Goodes over the incident, only to jokingly suggest on Melbourne radio the following week that Goodes should help promote the musical version of King Kong.

We watch News Corp columnists Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine sook over Goodes being named the 2014 Australian of the Year, sooks that escalate into full-blown temper tantrums when the footballer starts campaigning for Indigenous constitutional recognition.

We watch fans start to boo him, week after week, even as commentators and dickheads on social media insist it’s got nothing to do with his race.

Players get booed all the time, they say. It’s not because he’s black, it’s because he stages for free kicks. It’s because he’s a tall poppy. It’s because he picked on that 13-year-old girl. It’s because sport and politics shouldn’t mix.

But as bad as the booing is, it gets that much worse in 2015, after Goodes performs a celebratory war dance during the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round that ends with him throwing an invisible spear in the direction of the opposition cheer squad. Asked after the game if it was meant as an act of aggression, Goodes explains that of course it wasn’t.

“It’s Indigenous round,” he says simply. “Proud to be Aboriginal”.

Naturally, people lose their minds anyway. More column inches. More TV debates. More abusive tweets. More booing. It rolls out of the grandstands like a tidal wave whenever Goodes touches the ball. It gets so bad after a game against West Coast that he takes the following week off for mental health reasons. It’s reported that he’s thinking about retiring without seeing out the rest of the season.

Reliving this period, especially as a football fan, is a deeply uncomfortable experience, and it should be. Crowd behaviour is an ongoing issue for the AFL, and it’s not always clear when booing crosses the line from barracking into bullying.

But in Goodes’ case, the line wasn’t just crossed. It was obliterated. Even now, it’s hard to understand how fans justified it to themselves. If you think it’s acceptable to boo, surely that changes when you can see it’s having an effect on a person’s mental health. Even if you don’t think you’re being racist, surely when a person of colour tells you that you are, you reconsider.

As Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant says during an appearance on the ABC at the height of the saga: “I would like to think that in a civilised society, that if someone says to you ‘that hurts. This is hurting me, it is hurting Indigenous people, it has racial overtones’, we stop.”

Goodes’ time away was a tipping point for many. The Richmond Tigers wore their Indigenous guernsey in a show of solidarity. Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy took the field wearing Goodes’ number 37. Swans fans flocked to their game that week carrying signs in support of Goodes, and in the seventh minute of the third quarter, they stood up and applauded.

I watched these scenes in the documentary with tears in my eyes. I cried because those gestures were genuinely moving, but also because I remembered what happened next. Goodes returned to football. So did the abuse.

He hung up his boots at the end of the year, and was booed right to the final siren.

Beyond The Back Page

Controversy and scandal are the bread and butter of the football media.

Which coaches are going to get sacked? Which teams are going to miss out on the finals? Why the fuck can’t they get the score review system to actually work? But what happened to Goodes went well beyond the back page of The Herald Sun, and it’s wholly unsurprising that the individuals the led the pile-on in the press are some of the worst people in Australian media.

Andrew Bolt. Miranda Devine. Alan Jones. Rita Panahi. Neil Mitchell. Steve Price. The list goes on. People who make their living stoking the flames of fear and division, fuelling a culture war their bosses use to sell newspapers. It’s their ruthless attacks on Goodes that give the documentary a sickening air of déjà vu.

The truth is, what the conservative media machine did to Adam Goodes for speaking out about what it’s like to be Indigenous in this country is the same thing it did to Yassmin Abdel-Magied for highlighting the suffering of people in Australia’s refugee prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru. It’s the same thing it did to my former colleague Osman Faruqi for joking about white privilege on Twitter. It’s the same thing it did to the African community in Melbourne because of the actions of a tiny few.

Those attacks weren’t about race either, the machine insisted. It must have just been a coincidence that the victims were people of colour, and those launching the attacks were overwhelmingly white. Australian-Pakistani comedian Sami Shah wrote about this phenomenon recently in an essay for the ABC in which he described his fear of “getting Yassmin-ed”.

“Getting Yassmin-ed is that visceral experience of discovering that access to free speech is not equally divided amongst all Australians, and the consequences of transgression are more severe for some than others,” Shah wrote. “Before it was called getting Yassmin-ed, it was called getting Adam Goodes-ed.”

“First come the articles drawing attention to the indiscretion. Then the post-sunset television hosts begin their campaigns. Then social media turns into a veritable tsunami of violent threats and abuse.”

“There are two things all of these attacks have in common,” Shah added. “They’re always against people of colour. And the attackers always claim they’re not being racist.”

Australian Rules

The attackers still claim they weren’t being racist. And not just the ones in the media.

The arrival of The Final Quarter, as well as the imminent release of a second documentary about Goodes, has reignited the debate among football fans. Some who booed have expressed their regret. Most seem to be as stubborn as ever. But then again, that’s not really a football problem, is it?

Occasionally throughout The Final Quarter, Darling flashes the dictionary definition of certain words across the screen. At first, it seems unnecessary, and a little insulting to the audience. Surely we don’t need to be told what words like “racism” or “invasion” mean? But as the movie goes on, as the booing gets louder and louder, it becomes painfully clear that we do.

This country has always had trouble facing up to its bigoted history. We’ve never wanted to acknowledge the deep wounds left by colonisation or the suffering caused by institutional racism that still exists in Australia today. To concede that racism played a part in the abuse of Goodes would be to concede it plays a part in other areas of society as well. To concede that he was right and we were wrong. It’s much easier to just cup your hands around your mouth and boo.

As for the AFL, they officially apologised to Goodes last Friday, just hours before The Final Quarter had its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. The statement from the league and all 18 clubs acknowledges Australia’s history of “dispossession and disempowerment of First Nation’s people” and recognises that racism “continues to have a traumatic and damaging impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players and communities”.

“Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football,” the apology reads. “The game did not do enough to stand with him and call it out.”

Has Anything Actually Changed?

If nothing else, you get the impression that the AFL has tried to learn from what happened to Goodes. When West Coast Eagles forward Liam Ryan was racially abused on Instagram by a Richmond supporter earlier this year, the Tigers suspended the man’s membership until 2021, and warned that it would only be reinstated if he completed an Aboriginal cultural awareness and education program. Meanwhile, the Eagles released a video featuring the players and coaching staff that made clear in no uncertain terms that the club would not tolerate racism.

That said, this industry has always been good at doing and saying the right thing when the cost is relatively low.

Richmond’s swift response to the Ryan incident was in marked contrast to its handling of the nude photo scandal that rocked the club in 2017 after one of its players shared a naked photo of a woman without her consent. In the end, it suspended him for just three piddling weeks.

As I wrote at the time, “as good as the club has been at making big, strong, bold symbolic gestures [about gender equality], now that they find their own principles being put to the test, they have let themselves and their supporters down”.

Likewise, the AFL has had the chance to adopt a strong position on the issues it supposedly cares about many times before, and the result has been largely disappointing. It presents itself as a family organisation, yet the clubs take in millions and millions of dollars in gambling revenue. Its executives pat themselves on the back for launching the women’s league, yet refuse to properly promote or invest in the competition or its players. At the same time, one of the country’s most prominent football commentators has a long history of abusing women.

The AFL will face another test like this, sooner or later. If it really wants to make amends for failing Adam Goodes, it cannot fail again.

The Final Quarter will screen three more times at the Sydney Film Festival between June 15-20, and will air on Channel 10 later in the year.

Tom Clift is Junkee’s after-hours editor, and tweets at @tom_clift

Feature image by Wayne Taylor