Footballing legends Michael O’Loughlin and Gavin Wanganeen recently joined the AFL’s General Manager of Inclusion and Social Policy Tanya Hosch, in addressing the league’s struggles against racial abuse at a public screening of The Final Quarter in Adelaide.
The award-winning documentary is centred around Adam Goodes and the racism he endured throughout his career.
And, speaking at the conclusion of the screening, O’Loughlin opened up about the battles his best mate faced in his final years in the AFL. This is what he had to say.
“You could see it was just sapping the life out of him,” explained the Kaurna, Narungga and Ngarrindjeri man.
“I remember the [infamous] West Coast game in 2015. I was half-watching the game on television and my son who was seven or eight at this stage tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dad, why are the crowd in Perth booing uncle?’.
“It wasn’t until I turned it up, got off the phone and watched the game that I realised every time he got near the ball he was getting booed. My son was asking, ‘Did uncle punch someone? Did uncle do something wrong?’.
“At that moment, I had to have one of the most difficult conversations I’ve had to have with one of my children, about racism and why people do the things that they do.
“I’ve cried with Goodesy a number of times over it. Fans and young kids used to send footy cards in the mail to get signed, but it got to the point where Adam couldn’t open his fan mail anymore because people were writing letters about, ‘you a*o, you black so and so, you deserve this and this’.
“It was the toughest period I’ve ever been through with someone.”
One moment in history that drew particular ire was Adam Goodes’ war cry celebration after kicking a goal against Carlton in the 2015 Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round.
O’Loughlin was particularly aggrieved by the aftermath of a dance that should have been something to celebrate.
“It’s shut up and kick the football, it really is,” he said.
“I remember putting that war cry together with our Under 16s [Flying] Boomerangs, I was actually the coach and guys like Adam, Buddy [Franklin] and others really got inspired by it.
“The war cry came from a really good place. But it’s always non-Aboriginal people talking about things that are happening about Aboriginal people, we don’t get a chance [to have our say].
“There was no one in the media in that point talking about how this was an incredible thing, a celebration.”
Having entered her role at the AFL in the aftermath of the saga that left a two-time Brownlow medallist with little desire to watch football anymore, Hosch sees the traumatic chapter as part of a chain of events that should have been addressed.
“We just get complacent,” said the proud Torres Strait Islander woman.
“We have these moments in Australia, these cycles of racism. Something bad will happen, there’ll be this outrage and we’re really upset and there’s a lot of people speaking up about it.
“But for those of us who work in these fields, we don’t know where all these race warriors go the rest of the time.
“People walk past a lot of other small things, but the reality is the small incidents add up to the big incidents and it reaches a crescendo. Something terrible happens and we’re all shocked and appalled.
“And so, therefore, it happens again.”
Despite the disappointment of the past, the former Joint Campaign Director for RECOGNISE holds hope that football can play a pivotal role in addressing racism moving forward.
“Football in particular and sport more broadly seems to be the vehicle through which Australia has conversations about things that are really hard, because we see it played out in huge numbers,” said Hosch.
“Without getting too deep, I do think Australia really struggles with its history.
“We find it really hard to balance our love for our country with some of the things about our country that aren’t that pleasant to think about, to look at, to remember.
“Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. If we don’t hold on to the memories of the past, then we won’t really properly address these things going forward.”
Brownlow medallist and 300-gamer – the first Indigenous player to achieve either of those feats – Kokatha man Wanganeen remained upbeat about the role non-Aboriginal Australians can play in destroying negative cultural stigmas around Indigenous Australians.
“As non-aboriginal people, you guys hold the power,” he said.
“In your own circles, when these conversations come up, you can play a really positive part in regard to educating and stamping out any form of racism. That’s where the real power is and that will spread.
“Going back many years ago, it was the Australian way to have the joke, the slang in those conversations. We live in a day and age where that can’t be happening anymore, we’re too sophisticated for that.
“We need to be advancing as a nation. Australia’s a place for everyone.”
Image by Jarrod Pettit