Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Adam Goodes: Aboriginal AFL star calls out racists

By Gary Morley, CNN
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
HIDE CAPTION
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
This Australian rules
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Adam Goodes is a leading AFL player who has battled against racism
  • He is the most-capped indigenous player in the Australian sport
  • The 34-year-old has won two AFL titles and been named top player twice
  • Goodes has helped Sydney into 2014 playoffs as minor premiership winner

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for times, videos and features

(CNN) -- "A 13-year-old girl called me an ape."

Adam Goodes was not impressed. One of the most successful proponents of a sport that is more Australian than any other, a hero in a country where its stars are gods, he was not going to take such an insult lightly.

"I stopped, I called her out, got her escorted out of the ground, and from that point the awareness and the conversations that have been had around racism in this country have just skyrocketed," he tells CNN's Human to Hero series.

Goodes is a star of Australian Rules Football, best described as an often-confusing mix of the two rugby codes, basketball, and its close Gaelic football cousin.

"Aussie Rules," also known as AFL, reflects the nation's continuing battle with the aftermath of its colonial past.

On one hand it sometimes highlights appalling attitudes towards indigenous peoples -- after the incident with the girl, the president of the host team's club joked on radio that Goode should be used to promote a stage production of King Kong, effectively ending their friendship.

On the other, it has made great efforts to welcome indigenous players; there are 68 registered at the 18 Premiership teams this year, and their 9% total of the sport's overall list is greater proportionally than the 2.5% they make up of the country's total population.

So it was all the harder for Goodes to accept being abused during a game that was part of the AFL's 2013 "Indigenous Round" -- and played at arguably the country's most iconic sporting venue, the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground.

"I hope I'm a person people look up to and say, 'I remember the day Adam Goodes did that at the MCG. Today is the day I'm going to stand up for myself or stand up for somebody else who might not have a voice for themselves,' " he says.

Wheelchair racer defies the odds
Gay diving champion beats depression
Meet man who cycled around the world

"Since last year, a lot more cases have come through, and I think that's what needs to happen for it to improve. A lot more people need to call it out, need to say no to racism ... and we're going to improve as a community from there."

In recognition of his work helping Aboriginal youth and battling racism, Goodes was named "Australian of the Year" in January, the same month he turned 34.

"It's a very humbling experience," he says. "It's been an amazing platform for me this year to talk about things I'm passionate about -- like eliminating domestic violence and trying to get recognition in the constitution for Aboriginal people.

"It was quite dumbfounding for me to find out that we weren't part of (Australia's) constitution -- this is a document that's over 112 years old that doesn't recognize its first people."

When European settlers came to Australia in the 1800s, they took land from the indigenous people and forced the nomadic tribes to accept new ways of living, often splitting up families under a government policy of "assimilation" -- as highlighted in the acclaimed 2002 film "Rabbit Proof Fence."

Australian politicians have since apologized for the past mistreatment, but Aborigines remain disadvantaged socially and economically compared with the overall population.

Goodes, like many modern Aborigines, is from a mixed-race family, with a father of British descent.

Born in South Australia, his tribal name is Adnyamathanha -- the people who live in the Flinders Ranges, the largest in Australia. His place of birth (Wallaroo, on the York Peninsular near Adelaide, first settled by Europeans in 1836) means he is also Narungga.

"Growing up, I didn't know what it meant to be Aboriginal," Goodes recalls. "My mum was taken away from her family when she was five years old and we weren't really taught anything about what it meant to be Aboriginal -- no language, no culture, no ceremonies, no nothing.

"What we did know was where we came from, and that was Adnyamathanha and Narungga, so I've had to do a lot of that journey, to find out information about that, in the last 10 years.

"So for us, growing up, we just thought we were just like any other normal family. We didn't really see ourselves as mixed race. I copped stuff from people at school because of the different color and whatnot, but I had good support that helped me get through those tough times."

His parents separated when he was young, and he moved state to Victoria with his mother in his early teens, and they settled in another small country town.

Up until that stage, Goodes was a big fan of basketball star Michael Jordan, while his own talents were in soccer.

However, there were no teams in his new hometown -- so his mum suggested having a go at AFL.

"I was very athletic, so the running part of it was good," he says. "Grabbing the ball was quite difficult because it could bounce everywhere, but I was able to pick that up pretty easily."

The main premise of AFL is simple: kick the oval-shaped ball between the two central posts to score maximum points; if it goes through the two outside posts, the score is lower.

It results in basketball-size scorelines, and with 18 players on each team -- wearing sleeveless tops known as "guernseys" and notoriously short shorts -- all kicking, passing, running, jumping and jostling at high intensity for two hours, it can be a confusing spectacle, as Goodes admits.

Meet man who cycled around the world
Gilmore: Surfing can be feminine
Human to Hero: Stephanie Rice

"You might come and watch a game and not know what's going on. That's because the players, the coaches, the supporters and even sometimes the umpires don't know what's going on either," he says.

"I still think that I'm learning things and improving because it is a game that you can never truly master."

While it was started by European settlers in the 1850s, the game has strong links to an ancient Aboriginal sport known as Marngrook.

"We used to play a game where we'd have a possum skin filled with charcoal and they'd kick it around, hand-pass it around, 50-a-side, up and down these massive bits of land, and they would play for days," Goodes says.

He has won two AFL titles, once as captain, and twice been awarded the game's highest individual honor, the Brownlow Medal.

His biggest challenge becoming an AFL player, he says, was not being an Aboriginal in a white man's world, but having to uproot from his family at the age of 17 and chase his sporting dream in Sydney, where he had been drafted by the city's AFL club the Swans.

"In the first year, I didn't look even close to playing in the senior side, I played reserves all year," Goodes says.

"It was really a tough year for me and it wasn't until the next year that I actually really committed and decided, 'this is what I want to do, this is what I wanted to be.' I started to make those real sacrifices and really working hard, making all the right choices to be a professional athlete."

He was inspired by Aboriginal teammate Michael O'Loughlin, nearly three years his senior.

"The way our kinship system works, he's actually my nephew -- something I only just found out recently," Goodes says.

O'Loughlin was the first Sydney player to pass 300 games, and Goodes broke his club record in 2012 when he made his 304th appearance. He is now the most-capped indigenous player, having beaten Andrew McLeod's record of 340 games for Adelaide this year -- the most by any player is 426.

"To have him there to help mentor me, and show me the way, has just been an ideal situation for me and that's what I would want for my brothers and any other people when they go to a football club," he says of O'Loughlin, who retired in 2009.

Having had a long spell on the sidelines with injury last year, missing the club's run to the preliminary final, Goodes says he is determined to extend his career for as long as possible.

"I know I can still improve and I think that is what drives me," he says ahead of this weekend's opening playoffs, where Sydney will take on Fremantle after finishing the regular season as the top team.

"A lot of people would say I'm past it, but I still believe I have a lot to offer."

When he finally hangs up his boots, Goodes aims to focus on the foundation he set up with O'Loughlin, which provides school scholarships for Aboriginal children in Sydney.

"I've committed a lot of my time to my sport and there's going to be a big void for me to fill," he says. "It'll be nice to have a bit more spare time for me."

Read: Death's door to golden gladiator

Read: 'Warrior runner' who wouldn't quit

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Seema Tomar has stared down the barrel of poverty and prejudice to become one of the world's leading trap shooters.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Seema Tomar created history when she won a World Cup medal in 2010 and recently won double gold at the Asian Shotgun Championships.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0935 GMT (1735 HKT)
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0142 GMT (0942 HKT)
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.
ADVERTISEMENT