Adam Goodes.
Adam Goodes. (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Years ago, I seem to remember (or did I merely imagine it?) various quasi-unions and associations were conferring on amalgamating and then affiliating with the ACTU to create one big performers’ union. At its headiest, this was going to combine Equity, the actors’ mob, the writers guilds, and whatever union that covers party clowns and strippers … and the AFL players’ association. It was a delicious thought for a while. Those lithe ballet performers in their unstructured chaotic events called “Aussie rules” joining together with the actors, etc, etc.

That never came to anything, but it’s expressive of a truth about football — it’s an industrial activity, a onetime community activity that has since become an input product for mass media, the live crowds themselves now a mere add-on to the spectacle. Teams that were once grounded in the communities they lived in and could draw their players only from certain geographical areas are now brands, mere labels for whatever collection of players they build in each year.

That has not only changed the relationship between club and community, it has changed that between spectator and players. Players who once played on a Saturday and worked down the high street Monday to Friday are now separate people, superstars who live separate lives. That has given them lives that many could only envy — even if many stuff up those opportunities — but it also leaves them isolated, both from the fans and each other. Players have become commodities. That largely unspoken factor lies at the heart of the nasty, sad, depressing attacks on Adam Goodes, the reaction to them — and gives a clue about what needs to happen.

That the attacks on Goodes are racist is obvious, but it’s a complex performance of racism. In Europe, until pretty recently, non-white players for venerable soccer clubs would get systemically booed. But that was old-school white arrogance, the idea that these “subhumans” were besmirching the game that implicitly expressed the best of human achievement. The systemic attempt to do Adam Goodes’ head in has a different character. You won’t find much overt racialism in the comments about Goodes — no accusation of Aborigines being “unfit” to play the great game. Goodes isn’t being booed by the self-selecting group doing it because they believe themselves to be superior to him. They’re doing it because they know they aren’t, and the player-fanbase relationship has a strange and not always positive twist these days.

The self-selecting group of people whose chief pleasure in attending the game now comes from sledging Goodes may well be racist in their selection of an “uppity” Aborigine, but their relation to him is defensive and quasi-hysterical. He’s been a problem for them from the start, a man with a more confident and urbane bearing than many players — and particularly different to an earlier generation of earlier, somewhat quieter, indigenous AFL stars, who gave the impression that they were simply grateful to be getting a game, which was a demeanour acceptable to that section of the crowd. Furthermore the relationship between fans and players has taken on the same sadomasochistic quality of all audience-celebrity relationships: we want what they deliver, we hate them for their superiority.

With footballers, that’s become very marked, as they’ve become different in every way. Before it became huge business, players looked like the fans — somewhat fitter, but the same sort of demeanour, tending towards flab. Now as the fans have got flabbier, the players, trained, trimmed and sculpted by specialists, look better, play better and have wholly different lives. Resentment is never far from the surface. With white players, it’s channelled into vicarious thrills at their chaotic rockstar disaster lives, their maudlin battles with depression, etc, etc, but Goodes presents another challenge: a man not content to be nothing more than a ball-kicking machine. His assertion of his full humanity challenges the fan-player/master-servant relationship that makes fandom possible.

That’s the key to this essentially neurotic group reaction to a couple of fake war dances … Let’s face it, most of the people booing Goodes, by and large, aren’t life’s winners. Many of them are from social groups that society has somewhat passed by. Goodes is a winner and has come further than most under his own steam. The challenge to them from him is a reminder of that gap. Hence the self-pitying reaction of such people and their supporters, and the use of anti-racist discourse, twisted around. By that token, Goodes is the one bringing race into it, we’re not racist, etc, etc, and so it makes perfect sense to systematically try to mozz the bloke who’s saying you are. What could be greater proof of your non-racism that you’re prepared to take on this guy, even though he’s black! What courage we have!

“Players have to break the isolation the crowd is imposing on Goodes by re-solidarising, and collectively walking off. Both sides, for five minutes, each time mass and targeted booing starts.”

That was the dynamic of Goodes’ calling out of the 13-year-old fan who called him an “ape”. She apologised, and Goodes accepted it. It should have ended there, but for the visuals. She looked like someone who came to the footy to get what a lot of such people want — the chance to be part of a roaring crowd, a big beast, and to forget for a few hours the sense of crushing inferiority that the world is happy to hand out to many. Their collective rounding on Goodes is their revenge for that stark moment, when a whole series of social relations were laid bare. Put simply, they have never forgiven him for forgiving her, for rising above, in a way that they find impossible to do.

So this whiny, neurotic, honking goes on. It’s about race in this instance, but not merely about race. The same thing will happen when gay AFL players start to come out; it will happen if and when women start to play in AFL teams. Goodes is Gillard, Gillard is Nicky Winmar, and so the chain goes back and back. The sound is the great howl of the left-behind, watching as a new world is made around them by the people they could hitherto feel superior to without any effort on their own part.

Much of the animus towards Goodes has been promoted by Andrew Bolt, who has made that whiny white put-down-ness his stock in trade, channelled from a heritage — Dutch neo-Calvinism — refined and perfected over a century. It’s a post-settler form of white-skin privilege, not asserting its superiority, but perpetually expressing a purported fear of its own annihilation. It’s inevitable, too, that Alan Jones would want in, the perpetual hanger-around, a jowly Miss Jean Brodie of a thousand rugby league changing rooms, a man whose identity is so close to the edge that he seems to believe the moment he stops talking he will cease to exist. The booing crowd are their cheer squad. How much more fun this is than actually watching the game!

Yet such behaviour is a genuine dilemma for organisations like the AFL, even if its reaction was the perfect picture of amiable, over-promoted white guys well out of their depth (“Er, I’m not sure the lynching was racist, but I’d urge people to stop it …”). For until about 25 years ago, most institutions remained immune from the social changes of the 1960s. One by one they’ve all fallen. Every setting is now a site of social and cultural war. That is a path to liberation, but it’s an exhausting one. It’s also had institutions like the AFL take on the role of behaviour management that governments have been willing to take on in every area of our lives. Trouble is, faced with a concerted social act like the verbal tarring-and-feathering of Goodes, they can’t not do anything. Forty years ago, all they needed to do was provide a pie warmer and a bucket of orange quarters. Now they have to be a mass social-psychological management outfit.

That has two effects, here and elsewhere. The first is to drain all spontaneity and joy out of any social activity, which is what we’re well in the middle of now . The second, related to that, is to give condemned social acts such as the booing a cachet and meaning. They now become an assertion against the AFL, the pointyheads, the commentators, on behalf of the unruly and anarchic mob who will make their own laws. While the AFL scrambles around with ideas for more anti-racism training, counsellors, spraying the crowd with Lexapro, etc, etc, they revel in the problem they’re creating for them — especially since the selling point of football is its (illusory) anarchic, unruly nature. There is no doubt — and this is diagnosis and not excuse — that the AFL’s parallel willingness to become a sort of agent of social/cultural/behavioural change, rather than an outfit that just plays football, has contributed to this miserable, frustrating, joyless social war that actually crowds out the kicking around of a pigskin.

So what is to be done? The short answer, and the general rule for such social wars, is that nothing can be done by using more abstract powers, more behavioural manipulation to create a compliant subject. Such things can only be tackled on the same level that they occur, on the ground. This is an attack on a player by the crowd, and it can only be resisted by the players acting collectively and defining this apparent cultural problem for what it really is, an industrial issue. Adam Goodes is being cut off and mozzed by a crowd who know what its doing: drawing away the psychic energy necessary to play first-grade football to the necessary psychic defence that anyone must put up against such open assault.

Players have to break the isolation the crowd is imposing on Goodes by re-solidarising, and collectively walking off. Both sides, for five minutes, each time mass and targeted booing starts. Doubtless it would be tough to get all 40 players on both sides to come off — but it would really only take 10 in total, five and five, to throw the game into turmoil. It wouldn’t have to happen too much before one side of the crowd sorted the other one out. (I note Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has suggested the same thing, although more as a warning to the AFL than as an eager advocacy of turmoil, which is my take. Apparently, no amount of bizarre social phenomena will convince Tim that you can’t manage patriotism by having a social-technocratic elite set a list of approved patriotic characteristics and presume people will stick to them.)

Well, Goodes won’t be playing this weekend. He may even quit early. When the kid called him an “ape” what he talked about was the degree of hurt. Not anger, hurt. That there is no respect for the simple universality of the game, that anyone can play it, that it is an inherently humanist activity. The crowd booing was an attempt not merely to break his spirit, but to break his heart, a mob’s revenge on those who rise above bitterness when they themselves cannot. No one now can turn that around but the players, becoming again workers, comrades and team members rather than commodities and servants to the spectacle.