“YES, I GOT BUL­LIED”

EVEN AFTER RE­TIR­ING FROM FOOT­BALL, ADAM GOODES IS STILL A FIERCE COM­PETI­TOR – AND WHAT HE WANTS TO WIN NEXT IS THE FIGHT AGAINST IN­DIGE­NOUS DIS­AD­VAN­TAGE IN AUS­TRALIA

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Photography JAMES GREEN Words JOE HILDE­BRAND

Adam Goodes opens up about the con­tro­versy that led to his re­tire­ment, and why he now wants to help trans­form the lives of In­dige­nous chil­dren.

Imag­ine you’re caught in a so­cial me­dia storm – the 21st cen­tury’s Ro­man Colos­seum. Most of us know how it starts: the layer upon layer of com­ments that meld into one big blan­ket of abuse. Soon the screen in front of you be­comes a howl­ing vor­tex of fury, with you at its cen­tre.

Now imag­ine that you can’t turn it off. And the rea­son that you can’t turn it off is be­cause it’s not hap­pen­ing on a screen, it’s hap­pen­ing in the real world. The Colos­seum is real, and you are lit­er­ally, phys­i­cally stuck in the mid­dle of it. That is what hap­pened to Adam Goodes.

FOR SEV­ERAL IN­FA­MOUS months in 2015, the dual Brown­low medal­list, Aus­tralian Of The Year and In­dige­nous all-star couldn’t walk onto a foot­ball field with­out fac­ing a tsunami of gut­tural boos. The phe­nom­e­non cap­ti­vated and chilled the coun­try. It’s hard to think of any sin­gle in­di­vid­ual who was tar­geted on such a mass scale, yet also at­tracted such an out­pour­ing of love.

Goodes was hi­jacked by those on both the left and right of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide as an un­will­ing sym­bol of ev­ery­thing that was wrong or right with Aus­tralia. Vil­i­fied by some as a devil and li­onised by oth­ers as a demigod, a man who was a master of the foot­ball be­came a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball him­self.

Per­haps for all these rea­sons, when I first meet Goodes to in­ter­view him for Stel­lar, I ex­pect some­one of al­most su­per­hu­man di­men­sions. In­stead, I see a warm, mild and softly spo­ken man hunched over a ta­ble at a non­de­script cafe. I’m so re­lieved I want to hug him. And, as it hap­pens, I do.

In try­ing to imag­ine what it was like to ex­pe­ri­ence what Goodes has – be­ing the tar­get of a largely anony­mous yet an­gry mob – it is pos­si­bly best de­scribed as the mother of all Twit­ter storms. A Facebook Franken­stein.

“It was very much like a so­cial me­dia thing, be­cause I couldn’t see any of those peo­ple. I could just hear it,” Goodes nods in agree­ment of the com­par­i­son.

“But at least on so­cial me­dia, I can delete my Twit­ter. I can choose not to

go on so­cial me­dia, whereas when it was hap­pen­ing on the foot­ball field, it was re­ally hard. That’s my job. That’s my work en­vi­ron­ment. And up un­til the last two years of my ca­reer, it was a safe space where I did be­long.”

But it’s what he says next that is truly ex­tra­or­di­nary – es­pe­cially for a man so of­ten cast by his crit­ics as play­ing the vic­tim. In­stead of rail­ing against the out­rage, the un­fair­ness of it all, Goodes took per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for some­thing that wasn’t his fault.

“What I al­ways teach the kids is, you al­ways have a choice in life,” he tells Stel­lar. “I had a choice. I had a choice to be in that en­vi­ron­ment, or not be in that en­vi­ron­ment. I chose not to be in that en­vi­ron­ment.”

And with that, Goodes said good­bye to one of the most suc­cess­ful ca­reers in Aus­tralian sport­ing his­tory. He couldn’t turn the abuse off, so he did the one thing he had the power to do: he turned him­self off.

TWO YEARS LATER, it is fair to say that Goodes is back on. Hav­ing ac­com­plished vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing on the foot­ball field, he has now de­cided it counts for noth­ing if he can’t help close the gap be­tween In­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous Aus­tralia.

The chasm be­tween black and white Aus­tralia is the great an­chor on our na­tional soul. We can­not fly un­til we fix it. Yet too of­ten it seems that solutions get drowned in a sea of blame.

Goodes doesn’t have time for that. Even after footy he’s still a fierce com­peti­tor – he plays bas­ket­ball on Mon­days, soc­cer on Tues­days… He doesn’t want to ar­gue, he wants to win.

And when it comes to win­ning the war against In­dige­nous dis­ad­van­tage, there is one clear weapon – the same weapon that works against all dis­ad­van­tage: words.

The more words a child hears when they are young, the more they are talked to, the more they are read to and the more they can read them­selves, the bet­ter their chances in life. Astro­nom­i­cally and ab­so­lutely.

When it comes to trans­form­ing peo­ple’s fu­tures, this is as close to a magic bul­let as you can get. The sci­ence is not just in, it has sat down on the couch, put its feet up and is en­joy­ing a nice hot cup of tea.

The prob­lem is that child­hood lit­er­acy isn’t ex­actly what po­lit­i­cal

“I DIDN’T SEE MY­SELF AS THAT DIF­FER­ENT. YES, I GOT CALLED NAMES. YES, I GOT BUL­LIED. BUT WHAT KID DIDN’T?”

and me­dia types call “sexy”. What it needs is a bit of star power, and that’s where Goodes comes in – by us­ing his role as a David Jones am­bas­sador to throw his weight be­hind some of the ground­break­ing work by the Aus­tralian Lit­er­acy and Numer­acy Foun­da­tion (ALNF). He’s also en­listed the sup­port of fel­low David Jones am­bas­sador Jesinta Franklin. “When it comes to giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity and us­ing your pro­file and plat­form for good, Adam Goodes ex­em­pli­fies the ca­pac­ity at which an in­di­vid­ual can make a dif­fer­ence,” Franklin tells Stel­lar.

And if a sport­ing su­per­star and a fa­mous su­per­model can’t make child­hood lit­er­acy fash­ion­able, then who can? THAT DIF­FER­ENCE IS writ­ten on the faces of the kids at an ALNF pro­gram in Ta­ree, on the mid-north coast of NSW. Even be­fore Goodes walks through the door they are pressed against the win­dow shout­ing: “He’s here! He’s here!”

The story be­hind this scene would put a soap opera to shame. The pro­gram only ex­ists be­cause an anony­mous bene­fac­tor handed over a ma­jor six-fig­ure sum. Even now, the ALNF’S co-founder, Mary-ruth Men­del, has no idea who the mys­tery per­son is.

Is it Goodes? “No, I’m not that anony­mous donor,” he smiles. (But he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

The story twists on. Part of the rea­son why Abo­rig­i­nal kids of­ten strug­gle to read is that in some parts al­most all of them have ear in­fec­tions – some­thing most of us would never even think of. And how on earth do you teach a child to read when they can’t even hear prop­erly?

This is how. You make words come alive ev­ery­where, not just by teach­ing the kids but by teach­ing the par­ents and grand­par­ents, too. There are let­ters traced in the sand and in the bub­bles of the kitchen sink. Ed­u­ca­tion doesn’t just hap­pen in the class­room, it hap­pens in the whole com­mu­nity.

In­deed, ALNF’S whole pur­pose is to make it­self re­dun­dant; to show com­mu­ni­ties how to teach them­selves.

BUT THERE IS some­thing deeper and darker driv­ing Goodes. He was raised by a sin­gle mum in South Aus­tralia after his dad left when he was very young. He went to six dif­fer­ent pri­mary schools and two high schools be­cause the fam­ily moved around so much.

“I didn’t see my­self as that dif­fer­ent,” he says. “Yes, I got called names. Yes, I got bul­lied. But what kid didn’t?”

Footy was his ticket to ac­cep­tance. And while his mum knew the value of a good ed­u­ca­tion, it’s fair to say she learnt it the hard way.

“My mum was part of the Stolen Generation,” he says. “She was taken away when she was five and was put into a foster fam­ily and was ed­u­cated there, went to univer­sity and be­came a nurse. Ed­u­ca­tion was a big part of her life, so I’ve got no doubt when she was rais­ing us three boys, she had this fear in the back of her mind that if she didn’t make sure we went to school, were wear­ing clean clothes, had our lunch packed for us, that the gov­ern­ment might knock on her front door and want to take her kids away.”

The con­flict be­tween the trauma of his mum be­ing taken and the ben­e­fits of the ed­u­ca­tion that came with it is some­thing he still thinks about.

“Look, I think the same thing about that sit­u­a­tion, too. If my mum wasn’t taken away, would I have grown up in a com­mu­nity with lan­guage, with cul­ture? What would I value more? I can’t change what’s hap­pened in the past. What’s hap­pened has hap­pened.

“I CAN’T CHANGE WHAT’S HAP­PENED IN THE PAST… IT’S HOW WE DEAL WITH IT THAT AC­TU­ALLY CRE­ATES OUR CHAR­AC­TER”

It’s how we deal with it that ac­tu­ally cre­ates our char­ac­ter.”

And what is the char­ac­ter of Goodes? Splashed across the na­tional psy­che, you would think he was ei­ther a poster boy for vic­tim­hood politics or a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fire­brand. In fact, he’s just a thought­ful, in­tel­li­gent and dis­turbingly nor­mal guy.

Or, as he puts it, “I’m a joker. I still jump out of the cup­board and scare my wife when she walks past.” To help Adam Goodes close the gap, do­nate at david­jones.com.au/alnf-stel­lar and David Jones will match all do­na­tions up to $10,000; or buy a book from David Jones be­tween May 22–29 and they will do­nate 10 per cent of sales.

GREATER GOODES

Adam Goodes helps give kids a leg-up at the Aus­tralian Lit­er­acy and Numer­acy Foun­da­tion cen­tre in Ta­ree, NSW.

CHILD’S PLAY Goodes puts his sport­ing skills to good use at the ALNF cen­tre; (op­po­site) help­ing shape lives.

TEAM PLAYER

(above, in­set) Goodes with fel­low David Jones am­bas­sador Jesinta Franklin, who he has en­listed to sup­port the ALNF; (left) on the Syd­ney Swans team­mates.

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