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