The most dangerous strategy for establishing racial athletic superiority on a physiological basis would be to set (hormonal) differences that translate into physical advantages, and associated intellectual disadvantages, for a racially specific population (Hoberman, 1997: 227).
REFLECTING ON THE REAL AND THE UNREAL
History it is said is of events past. I beg to differ. History is re-lived in the present and as such is intrinsic to humanity. This study explores the intrinsic-ness of race in the context of the representation of Australian indigenous athletes in mainstream discourse. It seeks to make visible, to make plain, that which is opaque the assumptions of race and by implication racism and the discursive means through which they are conveyed.
Research does not occur in a historical vacuum. The history of race in Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the subsequent colonisation of the first Australians the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The historian Henry Reynolds (2006) uses the word invasion. The historic landing of 1788 is revisited in the game that is considered to be symbolic of the new nation, what is colloquially referred to as our game, the national game of Australian Rules football. The genesis for this study is witnessing the racial vilification of an indigenous athlete by spectators as he ran onto the ground in an Australian Rules match in 1992. I was shocked to hear of such vitriolic abuse for no other reason than he was black and a black bastard at that.
Race is the elephant in the room. It is there but nobody wants to acknowledge it let alone talk about it. My proposal, presented to an honours forum in 1993, to examine racism in Australian sport as a result of what I had witnessed drew a snicker. It became clear to me from this that it was not acceptable to mention race, unless in a trivialised manner, either in sport or in academe. Fortunately, I found a sympathetic supervisor and pressed ahead.
In 1999, I presented a paper on the importance indigenous communities attribute to sport at the first International Conference on Sports and Human Rights host by the University of Technology of Sydney. I cited the prevalence of indigenous athletes whose parents were taken as children from their families under the policy of protection, referred to as the stolen generations (Coram, 1999). A young indigenous man by the name of Adam Goodes was asked to respond to my paper which he did in a most unexpected way. He told for the first time of his mother being taken as a two year old. I have not forgotten the lesson of that day: that as researchers working in the area of indigenous issues, humanity must be at the heart of what we do.
In 2008, while attending a symposium for the Sport, Race and Ethnicity Conference (SRE) also hosted by the University of Technology of Sydney, an indigenous delegate stood up to express her hurt on the way the media treats indigenous athletes and she challenged the panel to tell her what was being done about this. Having presented a paper on the failure of the human rights Commission to adjudicate cases of racial discrimination in sport fairly the microphone was diverted to me to respond. I could only empathise with a promise to keep at it.
Irate at the patronising tone of an article depicting a 17 year old indigenous recruit as childlike, and self-absorbed, and frustrated at the absence of counter narratives from the academic community, I wrote yet another a letter to the Editor of the newspaper, The Age, which published the offending article, to draw attention to the representation of racial stereotypes. I also wished to remind the Editor that my letters were continually rejected and that being the author of a recently published book on the very subject this was not at all acceptable.
My letter was rejected but the backstory to this is noteworthy. The Editor commissioned me to write an essay on the origins of Australian Rules football, the national game, which was the subject of debate with historians claiming European origins in opposition to scholars including indigenous scholars claiming remarkable similarities between the national game and an Aboriginal game called marn-grook (or game ball). Hallinan and Judd (2012) coined the debate dueling paradigms. I enthusiastically accepted the commission.
Around the same time, Goodes penned an essay the indigenous game for the AFLs 150th anniversary tome The Australian game of football published in 2008 in which he holds to the marn-grook theory and
draws on this to explain the importance indigenous athletes attribute to the game. Goodes wrote that indigenous athletes are born to play (Morrissey, 2008; Dalton, 2014). In an extraordinary attack, Gillian Hibbins, a sports historian, labelled Goodes a racist for his comment (Morrrissey, 2008). Her outburst follows her critical essay, the seductive myth, also published in The Australian game of football (2008) in which she poured cold water on any connection between the national and indigenous game insisting there is no evidence (Morrissey, 2008).
I wrote my essay in support of the marn-grook theory citing Brough-Smyth (1878) which records William Thomas, an Aboriginal Protectorate, observing Aborigines in the Riverina play a game called marn-grook. I also mounted a defense for Goodes observation of being born to play on the grounds that this represented a statement of indigenous affinity to the game not one of racial superiority. My submission was rejected for an essay by journalist Harm (2008) who credits a doctoral student for discovering the Brough-Smyth source. This did not make sense as the Brough-Smyth source was well known. Indeed, I had cited it in my masters thesis (Coram, 1999).
The Editor informed me that he passed my letter on to journalists prompting a rebuke from senior sports journalist Greg Baum who declared me an ideological fool and my work specious (Baum 2008). It is likely that Baum was also responding to my book and to an article published in the International review for the sociology of sport in 2007 in which I argue the representation of the ape in the mainstream press (Coram, 2014). Motivated by the journalists privilege to brandish me without a right of reply, I rewrote my article in the context of official discourses of race and racism which was published in Social Identities (Coram, 2011a).
Denial is at the core of the debate. Hibbins does not acknowledge the body of literature identifying a compelling link between the national and indigenous game. Nothing new there. But then she takes it to another level with her easy criticism of Goodes being a racist for his observation that indigenous athletes are born to play. She makes her extraordinary claim on the understanding that racism is defined by the expression of racial superiority (Morrissey, 2008). The context in which Goodes wrote his essay, on the origins of the game, makes it pretty clear that he was trying to capture the importance of the game. He was not trying to claim a superior status.
Hoberman (1997) wrote that the myth of black dominance is accepted by African as much as by white Americans and it is to this arguably that Hibbins asserts Goodes to be racist for supposedly buying into the myth of racial dominance. However, Hibbins reveals her simplistic understanding of racism in linking this to racial superiority, in turn, an expression of (innate) difference. Central to her criticism of Goodes is that he invoked racial difference. Aside from the fact that this is debatable, I propose she would have little criticism had he invoked cultural difference. This is precisely what Goodes did, I believe, but she interpreted his comment through the prism of racial superiority. In a bizarre twist of race logics, the racist has been turned back on indigenous peoples as a criticism of their racism. This was illustrated in Hibbins attack of Goodes (Morrissey, 2008).
Here is the crux of the debate. Hibbins rejects the expression of racial superiority as racist whereas Baum puts this down to misplaced and misguided liberalism futility as its worst in his criticism of Hibbins (Baum, 2008). After all, it is a statement of reaffirmation. How can it be racist? Both totally miss the mark. The hegemony of the racist, defined by intent to discriminate on the grounds of difference, is patronising and passes over deeper understanding of racism underscored by the absence of intent: to overlook, to not have to listen, to not have to do something. Taylor (2004) describes this eloquently and simply as disregard.
The fixation with racial superiority, and likening this to being racist, masks an uncomfortable silence in relation to the debate on the origins of the game: that of privilege to dismiss the relevance of indigenous scholarship to explain the origins of Australian Rules (see Hallinan and Judd, 2012). Hibbins repeatedly states the objective line that there is no evidence (Morrissey, 2008) but it all depends on where one looks or does not look. Underlying her denial is the prospect that the much touted our game simply cannot be their game.
Denial is standard. Denial of indigenous knowledge and denial of the humanity of indigenous athletes that cuts across institution and context. It underscores the failure of sports administrators to protect junior participants from the harm of racial vilification and to deliver appropriate sanction. A thirteen year old Tongan boy was suspended for retaliating to his vilification in rugby league (Page, 2010). Furthermore, a request for an apology from the parents of an eleven year old Iranian boy, called a nigger by a spectator, was denied (Cresswell, 2011). This is a classic example of the changing significance of race in the importing of the historical race logic of black inferiority, mediated through the nigger, across national, ethnic and cultural boundaries.
Racial vilification is but one form of disregard and that in a nutshell is the problem (Coram, 2013). Vilification for the most part is recognisable for what it is. Less so is patronising discourse on the natural state of indigenous people or the inability of administrators to apply discretion in their decision making rather than hide behind rationalisations of objectivity or neutrality in their interpretations of fairness. Far from being fair, I have argued in relation to claims of racial discrimination, heard before the Human Rights Commission, that fairness is evaluated restrictively. The interpretation pivots on whether a respondent did not act unfairly rather than act unfairly (Coram, 2013). Based on a double negative, fairness has been turned on its head.
The inverting of fairness abrogates institutions of their responsibility to ensure just handling of matters of discrimination. That is to say, judicial emphasis on remediation of the individual requires only the task of educational awareness. As McGlade (1997) points out, there is no apportioning of responsibility in her critique of judicial reluctance in Australia to find racial discrimination.
Restrictive interpretations of fairness occurs in particular context. It is argued that part of the context to this is the language of neutrality in which racial discrimination, for example, is reframed minimally into cultural disadvantage (Coram, 2008). The logic embedded here is that culture is inclusive and therefore does not discriminate. Thus, the solution requires only the provision of cultural advantage as well as cultural awareness training for providers to ameliorate the underlying discrimination. The AFL functions as a provider in its efforts to provide pathways for indigenous youth into the national game and to educate the public on the pervasiveness of racism after decades of denial. This is indicative of the enduring, not declining, significance of race and the need for studies to interrogate the silences and contradictions of race and racism mediated within and through social discourse.
There has been an important shift in the representation of indigenous athletes and the politics surrounding them. For instance, Niall (2015) reflects on the role of sport for cultivating meaningful change within indigenous communities. He finds that much more work must be done. Moreover, indigenous athletes are beginning to challenge their representation including the narrative of the natural talent. Whereas indigenous athletes once tolerated their abuse on-field, for fear of risking their careers, they are now taking a stand. Adam Goodes, Australian of the year in 2014, wrote an essay about the hard work it takes to be natural (Goodes, 2010).
The prospect of a new dawn from such enlightened discourse does not appear to deter disregard of the humanity of indigenous athletes. An example is the ghastly throw-away slur of the ape. Goodes was racially vilified by a teenage spectator who called him an ape in 2013 (Baum, 2013). The context to this deepened following the remark from AFL club president, Eddie McGuire, on his regular radio broadcast, that Goodes could promote the play King Kong about to open in Melbourne (Cordy, 2013).
McGuires attempt at a playful tone is indicative not only of the failure of those in office to act appropriately, to be able to say as well as do the right thing, but also of the ease in which bigotry emerges. McGuire recognised the misdeed in the overt racial vilification of Goodes, by the teenage spectator, for which he offered a sincere apology to Goodes (Cordy, 2013). But, he did not recognise his own stooping to offence since his remark was presumably intended to be a joke. The core unrecognised assumption here is that an expression of bigotry is only a problem if intended to wound (Coram, 2013). Despite his contribution to sport, and to Australian culture and society in general, Goodes is unworthy of respect.
Changing contexts requires those engaged in the field to be ever vigilant. The challenge is enormous given that racism remains unpopular. Gate keepers to the knowledge community shut down when it comes to submissions examining race and racism (Coram and Hallinan, 2013). There is considerable pressure to change the language or to rewrite in a way that circumvents the politics of race. Much like the debate on the origins of the national game this one comes down to privilege and location: to listen or not listen.
I acknowledge that if not for editorial support, my argument on the depoliticising of race and racism (Coram, 2013; 2014) would not have received an airing. In contemporary western discourse of equality and opportunity, race and racism barely exist and if they do they are no longer connected. In other words, racism is independent of race. The effect is to create a form of race to be celebrated, as in black athletic superiority, and to redefine racism to aberrant and ignorant conduct of the racist. Easily dispensed, racist rhetoric conflates bigotry with despotism that denies the world of difference between. Thus, the myth of society free of race can be seamlessly held to.
The research tradition of objectivity, especially, has contributed to this. Critical race theory resists objective research writing through the subjectivity of telling story. I draw on that tradition to make visible the origins of my approach to race and racism. My engagement with race originates in my formative years in a rural town in New Zealand. Being Maori, I was a black bitch who would amount to nothing. Shamed by my race, I wished I had thin not thick lips, white not black skin, and smooth blonde not frizzy black hair.
If not for the encouragement of the principal and a teacher, I would not have found reprieve in study. My eventual leaving for the big smoke of Auckland and graduation from there to cross the ditch to Melbourne Australia has not changed things much.
The post-racial version of my racialisation is complex and harder to see since it is couched within the language of merit and fit (Coram, 2009). It happens informally and when least expected: the casual but loaded dinner party conversation around why, for example, it is not racist to say that blacks are good at sport. Inevitably, it falls to me to defend an unpopular positon that it is indeed racist though in a recent encounter I was sufficiently in charge of myself to declare that what is meant by racist is not clear. The real answer is that it is indeed problematic to say that blacks are good at sport because it assumes that race explains black efficacy and that, therefore, all blacks are good at sport. Such commonsense is taken for granted without considering the effort required to be good at sport or the failures of blacks who are not good at sports.
I wonder if, people perhaps believing themselves to be liberal-minded, wish to draw me in by making agreeable statements about indigenous people, their talents for sport and so on, and in their declarations that it is not racist to say this. Are they misled into assuming that because it is not negative I would have no objections? I mention this because it strikes me that race and racism are poorly understood in the public domain. It is evident to me that racism is understood or defined by an intent to discriminate on the basis of race irrespective whether that race is black or white. This makes the task of unpacking assumptions of race in everyday discourse all the more difficult because whites are now the equal of blacks. They, too, are victims of racism. This completely ignores histories of race and how those histories are replicated in the liberal order of things, to explain indigenous people.
Racism, if that is the word we are still to use, is hardly about intent at all. In its contemporary context, racism is embedded within the unremarkable, the ordinary, or the taken-for-granted. As commonsense, there is no need to question what is meant by difference, forms of difference, or the implications of difference. Whereas the old version of difference rooted in (black) racial inferiority was once the norm, the new norm for marking racial difference is captured in black athletic superiority. Moreover, in another turn, racial difference is recast as cultural difference an example of which is the construct of indigenous styles of play. Intended positively, cultural difference is unstable as much as racial difference. Criticism of indigenous athletes may resurface in the event that the unique talents attributed to indigenous athletes and their style of play are not produced. Displeasure is but a moment away: thus, tolerance of indigenous mastery can revert back to racial intolerance (Coram, 2014).
Culture is likened to being transformative. But culture, too, is underwritten by the constraints of essentialism. The struggles of indigenous athletes to compete at the highest level are often explained through their isolation from family and country, an expression of culture (Flanagan, 2004). Not surprisingly, the sensible response is for indigenous athletes to return to country. But the turn to an initiative driven by culture is part of the problem as much as the solution in so much that the failures of institution to ensure their inclusion and acceptance within the mainstream are overlooked. In other words, culture is the only explanation or solution for indigenous affairs and, as such, culture works to obscure the need for institutional change.
Unacknowledged constructs of race are at the heart of this study. Racial ideology of physiological superiority attributed to the African male has been imported to the Australian indigenous athlete. The unintended consequences of positive discourse are yet to be fully appreciated. The assumption of black athletic superiority obscures the absence of black superiority in the classroom or in the political domain. Moreover, the presence of positively intended narratives does not mean that the negative has been displaced indicated by the seamless shift from hero to villain in articles reporting controversy or last chance stories. It is the language that has changed, represented in the shift from racial to cultural difference but not the assumptions beneath the language.
A brief overview of 2015
Each season the new crop of indigenous AFL athletes are announced. In 2015, 72 AFL players are listed as indigenous (AFL Indigenous Community). This is interpreted as a remarkable achievement given that indigenous people comprise three percent of the Australian population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013). A minority in the national population of three percent they exceed this in the AFL to represent around nine percent of the AFL playing population. Here is cause for celebration a sign of access and opportunity at work. There is some concern, however, as the numbers have not risen incrementally as projected or hoped for. In 2007, 65 AFL players were listed as indigenous. In 2014 the figure was 68.
The normalising discourse to capture indigenous entry into the AFL is talent. Twomey (2015) reports that AFL has appointed a talent advisory committee comprising twelve members to focus on indigenous
engagement preparation and player retention. Part of the work of the committee will be to determine whether the decline is numbers is a problem of supply in terms of less talent available or a demand problem. On average, ten indigenous players have been drafted each year for the past eighteen years. There was a 25% drop in 2014. The AFL is not sure of the reasons equity or equality in terms of whether, for example, indigenous athletes have the same opportunities as non-indigenous athletes in the big capital cities (Twomey, 2015). This is indicative that the related normalising assumption of indigenous untapped talent requires only the provision of opportunity. If the assessment is that the problem is one of demand, it will be intriguing to see if affirmative action appears in future recruitment initiatives.
There is another aspect to this that is also deserving of attention. Whilst the focus is on recruitment a much neglected issue is longevity. Of the 68 indigenous AFL players listed in 2007, 20 remain listed as current in 2015. This is indicative that a career as an elite AFL athlete beyond ten years presents a significant challenge. Complicating this is the unwelcome reality that the descriptive language has not much changed. Indigenous athletes are still the freaks the marvels of the AFL (Smith, 2012). Hallinan et al (1999) undertook a ground breaking study of the positions allocated to indigenous athletes in the AFL. They found that racial stereotypes of black athleticism inform the positioning of indigenous athletes as adjuncts [my emphasis] to the key position or central roles occupied predominately by non-indigenous players. Indigenous athletes for the most part are the instinctive forwards who, in modern parlance, can create opportunities to steal a goal or two.
In a follow up study in which all AFL positions over an eight year period were tracked, Hallinan et al (2005) found evidence of positional clustering. Indigenous athletes were under represented in central positions and over represented in non-central positions that conform to race logics and indigenous stereotypes. It would be interesting to see if the pattern of clustering identified by Hallinan et al in 2005 is found to hold ten years on. Positional segregation is part of the history of racism in Australian sport including not least of all racial vilification of indigenous athletes by opponents and spectators. Attention is at last starting to be paid to other forms of exclusion in the AFL in terms of the absence of indigenous representation in coaching and administration (Niall, 2015).
Hallinan et al (2005) make an interesting distinction between race logics and indigenous stereotypes. I can understand this, as there are clearly distinguishing characteristics between race and culture, but I suggest nonetheless that race logics are interwoven with indigenous stereotypes. For example, the construct of indigenous athletes as natural talents reflects the race logic of the natural body and the colonial indigenous stereotype of the noble savage who is at one with the natural surrounds. In his thesis on how the media others indigenous AFL players, Smith (2012) identifies performance descriptors instinct, consistency, physicality that represent the spectacle of indigenous athletes as freaks and marvels. Smith cites Judd (2010) who links the racial stereotyping of indigenous athletes to being deeply rooted in colonialism. Smith (2012), however, demonstrates that racial logics embedded in colonial ideology continue to be represented in contemporary Australian sports media discourse in and around the indigenous athlete including controversy.
Indigenous athletes continue to make headlines for the wrong reasons such as a drink-driving charge for the AFL Demons player Geoff Garlett (Cresswell, 2015). In 212, another Demon, Liam Jurrah, touted as future champion and role model to indigenous youth, was charged with an assault with a machete in a camp outside of Alice Springs (Everingham, 2012). He also faced charges of domestic assault and was incarcerated. What is remarkable about this is that his parents and some cousins are incarcerated with him. Jurrah is not altogether unhappy about this as he is with family (Niall, 2014). Jurrah, of course, is no longer with the Demons. Other AFL indigenous athletes who have been incarcerated include one of the pioneers of the 1980s, Jim Krakouer, for drug trafficking offences. His son Andrew Krakouer was incarcerated in 2008 (Green, 2013). Andrew Krakouer was released in 2009 and has devoted himself to a reform program called Its your time (Green, 2013).
Krakouers incarceration reflects the travesties of the corrections services besetting indigenous communities. In December 2014, 9,264 of a total prison population of 24, 4453 identified as indigenous. This is a significant increase on the 2004 statistics in which 5.048 of a total prison population of 19, 123 identified as indigenous (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). At three percent of the national population, a significant minority, indigenous people over represented in the Australian prison system by around one to four, twenty five percent.
Whilst being careful not to blame indigenous people for the predicaments they face, it is timely to draw attention to the limits of discourse on the indigenous athlete role model. Sport, a slippery slope, should hardly be the measure for this. The careers of profile athletes are often short lived, which raises the question of what constitutes a role model? That said, some have taken on the role admirably of which Adam Goodes
is a prime example and so too of Krakouers participation in the prisoner release reform program (Green, 2013).
Indigenous athletes do not compete in a political vacuum. The Coalition Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has proposed the closing of 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. His language was provocative in linking this to reluctance on the part of government to continue to subsidise lifestyle choices of indigenous people living in remote communities (Rothwell, 2015). Indigenous AFL players have joined an online campaign to speak out in protest to the prospective closing of remote Aboriginal communities (Hatch, 2015). To speak out would hardly have been possible for indigenous athletes twenty years ago. In that sense, there is much to appreciate in the progression toward indigenous social equality in Australia.
The reality for many indigenous people is a life of struggle (Overcoming indigenous disadvantage, 2011). Meanwhile their athletes attempt to carve out careers in sport but this is contingent on the expectation that they excel. The dichotomy of the good black bad black, and the ambivalence of this underscored by the prefix un, in the representation of indigenous athletes in print media discourse remains relevant in 2015. Here, in part, is the history of race in Australian sport.
First published in 2007, the real and the unreal borrows from critical race theory of race formations to argue the re-representation of race logics in relation to Australian indigenous athletes. The prefix un was and remains crucial to arguing the contradictions of race underscored by the invisibility of race when it matters most (the real) and the visibility of race, the celebration of indigenous athletic superiority, when it matters least (the unreal).
Having happily agreed to the offer of a second edition, I wondered how it might read eight years on. I still like the pace, the way it flows, and the flashes of insight. I had forgotten, though, about how passionately I approached the book and whilst I doubt that I would do the same again I do believe it served its purpose then to tell it like it is to reveal the imputation of race logics that are denigrating and or patronising of indigenous peoples. That said, I have taken the opportunity to tighten up the sloppy bits and to fix up the numerous typographical errors that escaped my attention the first time. I also took the opportunity to rewrite the terms of reference and to the build into the preface by opening with Reflecting on the real and the unreal.
I resisted the urge to rewrite the second edition knowing full well that if I did I would end up writing an entirely different book altogether which I did not wish to do though I very nearly did. In any case, I did not have access to my notes and books, currently in storage, while I commute between Papua New Guinea where my husband is an Australian advisor and our home in Australia. I have settled instead for a tidy up, a tone-down, and a reorganisation of the introduction and opening chapter. I have left the arguments that race is universal and that indigenous youth must run the gauntlet of education so as to convey the intrinsic-ness of race and the understanding that pathways in sport are an indictment of society not a cause for celebration.
Race is an element of social structure rather than an irregularity within it (Omi and Winant, 2002: 124). The objective is to argue the presence of race logics, racial discourse, embedded within representations of indigenous athletes. This is made on the understanding that journalists draw from the same assumptions circulating within mainstream discourse. It most certainly is not to point the finger or to cast about accusations of the racist (Baum, 2008; Coram, 2014). It is argued that the import of black athletic dominance to the indigenous context does not displace racial ideology of black inferiority and that racial ideology is replicated within constructs of cultural difference. They are much the same in adhering to essentialism of difference. Logics of race and now of culture define indigenous athletes in terms of who they are and how they are to be understood.
This study undertakes a critical reading of the representation of Australian indigenous athletes, past and present, in the mainstream print media based primarily in the Australian city of Melbourne. The primary sport in which indigenous athletes are said to dominate is the elite league of Australian Rules football, the Australian Football League (AFL). This means that the material gathered for analysis is devoted mostly to the representation of indigenous athletes in the AFL. It unpacks not only the persistence of race logics in the representation of indigenous AFL athletes positive and negative but also their changing significance re-represented through frameworks of cultural difference. This is all the more important given that indigenous peoples are rarely visible to the major urban cities of Australia except as natural athletes, nomads, welfare recipients, drunks or misfits.
The first edition was fitting: an unadulterated version designed to tell it like it is. The second builds on this through introspection, by looking back in a tempered fashion, to acknowledge the contribution of journalists writing toward social justice, but at the same time to continue to implore the changing significance of race.