Culture

Eddie McGuire, Apes, And Other High-Functioning Primates

Eddie McGuire's gaffe on Wednesday was shameful and embarrassing, but it's distracting us from the real problem.

We missed you too. Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter, so you always know where to find us.

Adam Goodes chased a bouncing ball towards the MCG boundary on Friday night, something he has done hundreds of times in his career. But this time was different. This time he stopped, stared, raised one arm as if in slow-motion, and pointed a finger at a Collingwood supporter in the front row.

The incident occurs at 1:17

Almost straight away, the commentary team knew something was up. In the box that night was Paul Roos, Goodes’ former coach, and Michael O’Loughlin, Goodes’ former teammate, close friend and one of the most-decorated Indigenous players in the history of the game — and they could tell from Goodes’ reaction that something serious had been said. No one knew exactly what, until Goodes recounted the experience at a press conference the next day. But “you fucking ape” is more or less what everyone assumed.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The round of games played at the weekend was the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, created to celebrate the enormous contribution that Indigenous Australians have made to the code, and the clash between Sydney and Collingwood featured three of the most exciting Indigenous players in the sport: Goodes, Andrew Krakouer and Lewis Jetta (who kicked a thrilling running goal in the third quarter). This was also the 20th anniversary of a famous incident in 1993, when Nicky Winmar responded to the racist taunts of Collingwood fans by raising his jumper and pointing, defiantly, to his black skin.

But then something remarkable happened. The entire AFL community closed ranks around Goodes, players tweeting their support for him, outraged that something like this could happen in 2013. And Eddie McGuire, president of the Collingwood Football Club, went straight down to the Sydney changerooms after the match to talk to Goodes and apologise on behalf of Collingwood.

Adam Goodes talks to the press

Goodes: “I was shattered.”

Even more notable was the morning after, when Goodes fronted the media to talk of his hurt — but mostly to use this as a teachable moment, to reach out to the 13-year-old girl at fault and explain to her that (a) calling an Indigenous man an ape is racist, (b) why it’s racist, and (c) how it made Goodes feel.

No recriminations, no blame, just compassion.

It really did feel like a watershed moment, in which the racism in Australian society was acknowledged but we were given a way to engage with it, and to show people how to move beyond old mindsets.

And then Wednesday happened.

379906-eddie-mcguire

On his breakfast radio show, Eddie McGuire and his co-host Luke Darcy were talking about the new King Kong musical opening in Melbourne, and about a giant gorilla hand currently protruding from Melbourne’s tallest building. Then this happened:

Darcy: What a great promo that is for King Kong.
McGuire: Get Adam Goodes down for it do you reckon?
Darcy: No I wouldn’t have thought so, absolutely not.
McGuire: You can see them doing that can’t you?
Darcy: Who?
McGuire: Goodsey.
Darcy: What’s that?
McGuire: You know with the ape thing, the whole thing, I’m just saying the pumping him up and mucking around and all that sort of stuff.

In the hours that followed, McGuire tried to walk back his comments, suggesting that he was attempting to allude to “the old days” when people would use black people in tuxedos as popular attractions (the Noble Savage), and how absurd that is by today’s standards. But that’s not what he actually said. McGuire also said, later, that he had simply been exhausted on air and started rambling, that he wasn’t entirely sure what he had been going on about either.

What he did say, just five days after behaving so admirably after an Indigenous footballer was called an ape, was that the very same footballer would be a promotional boon for a musical about the largest ape in popular culture.

And it’s a shame, because this moment of Michael Scott racism overshadows the wonderful work McGuire did over the weekend.

It’s a shame because the AFL should be immensely proud of the opportunities available for Indigenous players through football — only 2.5% of the Australian population is Indigenous, but they make up almost 10% of professional AFL players. And in a country where most media depictions of our Indigenous people are of the desperate and destitute, it’s hugely important for people to see Goodes, and Buddy Franklin, and the 77 other Indigenous AFL players competing on an equal playing field.

It’s a shame because it overshadows Collingwood’s Barrawarn Program, which was expanded just last Friday to now provide 35 long term jobs for Indigenous Australians living in Victoria, and it’s a shame because it completely overshadowed a weekend of AFL intended to celebrate the unique contribution that Indigenous players have made to the sport.

We’re Distracting Ourselves From The Real Problem Again:

But the most shameful thing is that there is real, systemic, centuries-old racism in Australia, and yet this is the issue that has dominated our week. (That this has all happened during National Reconciliation Week is so wonderfully ironic that it would almost be funny if it didn’t make me feel like weeping.)

Because there is racism in Australia. It’s in our public institutions, it’s on our airwaves, it’s in coded language, and it’s in legislation governing Indigenous Australians, that no Indigenous people were involved in writing. Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy 17 years lower than non-Indigenous Australians; Indigenous students are half as likely as non-Indigenous students to reach year 12; Indigenous Australians are 13 times as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to be imprisoned, and Indigenous juveniles are 23 times as likely as non-Indigenous juveniles to have been detained.

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the Northern Territory ‘intervention’, an event that many still argue essentially amounted to a military annexation of Indigenous lands and communities. But until we as a nation decide that we are at least as interested in overcoming widespread Indigenous disadvantage as we are about Eddie McGuire saying something unbelievably stupid, the stain on our national soul that’s been there since colonisation will remain.

Hugh Robertson is a Sydney freelance writer whose feelpinions on music, TV, film, politics or AFL you may have encountered in New Matilda, the BRAG and Faster Louder. Briefly on staff at The Global Mail, Hugh is now the Music Editor of Concrete Playground.