PtG Article 22.07.2003

The Dark Side of Australian Sport

In spite of the attention given to the Australian Aborigines before and during the Summer Olympics 2000 in Sydney, the games didn't change their human rights situation. Genuine racial equality in Australian sport remains disturbingly out of reach, writes professor and human rights expert Colin Tatz.

For many, Sydney beating Beijing for the 2000 Olympics was a straight-out case of the forces of good smashing the forces of evil. For them, there were no grey areas, no irritating complexities.

Nothing is so simple. Fortunately for Sydney, amid the prolonged and unbecoming bidding process, there were no Chinese researchers to examine our record on human rights. We were lucky that people tended to see human rights or, rather, inhuman rights, solely in terms of episodic massacres as at Tiananmen Square or Sharpeville and Boipotong in South Africa.

Happily for Sydney’s campaigners, no one abroad was documenting Aboriginal life expectancy, infant mortality, homelessness, illiteracy, rates of incarceration, deaths in custody, homicide, suicide, and self mutilation. Nor was anyone examining the treatment of Aborigines in Australian sport.

If anyone had beenif the Chinese Government had withheld a portion of the funds it devoted to doping its swimmers, and used them instead to get the dirt on its stone throwing opponent. Sydney 2000 might have been in the same category as Melbourne 1996: a pipedream that never felt the glow of reality.

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The 1960s looked good. They felt good. Guilt about the past spawned an eagerness for change, and several great Aboriginal sports stars captured the mood as symbols of the new Australia.

There was Lionel Rose’s stunning homecoming as world bantamweight champion in 1968 when, from the airport to Melbourne Town Hall, he was cheered by more than 200,000 supporters shouting ”You beaut little Aussie!” For white Australians, Rose’s colour disappeared. Momentarily.

Around the same time, a shy, unaffected Aboriginal girl from outback NSW, Evonne Goolagong, sauntered into big time tennis and proceeded, over the next decade and a half, to win tournaments, including two Wimbledon singles crowns,  and adoration with a game and personality graceful and engaging.

And there were the footballers, beautiful in their savage games. Graham ”Polly” Farmer, in his prime in the 1960s, played 392 senior games and was surely one of the greatest Australian  Rules players of all time; Lloyd McDermott was a scintillating Rugby Union winger for Australia against the All Blacks; and Arthur Beetson, one of twenty Aborigines and Islanders who’ve played Rugby League for Australia, was, for many, the best. Described once as ”the laziest forward in senior football”, he played 16 of the 19 matches on the 1973 English tour, hardly the achievement of a man said to last only half a game. Rated by the English as the greatest forward in the world, hero of the first State of Origin game, and a successful coach, the rotund giant’s influence was profound.

There were others Michael Ahmatt (basketball), John Kinsella (wrestling), Cheryl Mullett (badminton) and Richard ”Darby” McCarthy (jockey)and with these pioneers, especially Goolagong, came some enlightenment. Aboriginal achievement was recognised by the public and sports administrations with a mixture of guilt, awkwardness and pride, and thus it wasn’t totally surprising that, many years later, Mark Ella became a national hero, representing Australia in 26 Rugby Union Tests and captaining the side nine times.

A black captain of the ”silvertail” football code: it would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. A South Sea Islander, Mal Meninga, would achieve the corresponding stature in Rugby League in the late 1980s, eventu¬ally leading Australia 23 times. The plaudits on his retirement in 1994 are still being heard in 2002. We looked at these indigenous champions of the Sixties and saw, or thought we saw, an era and a spirit of equality. We thought we saw a monu¬mental turning point in Australian racial perceptions.

Now we know, despite the Ellas and Meningas, that we were kidding ourselves.

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Racial vilification in Australia has reached appalling depths, which goes a long way to explaining the inflated optimism of the Sixties. Compared to the bad old days, the Sixties were enlightened times. But the bad days were almost incomprehensively wicked . . .

As world heavyweight champion, Canadian Tommy Burns was deter¬mined not to fight a black man, but couldn’t refuse an astronomical 15,000  to engage ”the Black Menace”, American Jack Johnson, in Sydney on Boxing Day, 1908. (The United States wasn’t ready at the time for an inter¬racial title fight.) To a man and woman, to the clergy and the press, Johnson was loathed here with a seething, hysterical hatred. The epitome of evil, ”the Fear of Dark”, had come to white Australia. The public and the press saw the contest as the means for putting all blacks in their place, the ultimate demonstration of white supremacy.

Johnson physically and verbally humiliated Burns, the police ending the mayhem in round 14. It was a defeat the Australian public received like a knife in the shoulder.

Racism was more than verbal. More than 10,000 Aborigines were slaughtered in Queensland alone between 1824 and 1908, and authorities were sufficiently disturbed by the carnage to appoint Archibald Meston as Royal Commissioner in 1896.  His report led to the strangely titled statute, The Aboriginals Protection And Restriction Of The Sale Of Opium Act 1897 strange because we associate protection legislation with safeguarding, for example, endangered eagles, rather than with saving a race of humans from wilful extermination.

In law, genocide is not simply biological killing: it includes the forced removal of children from one group to another. All State Protectors felt that ”half caste” children should be ”saved” by removal, forcible removal, into the mainstream. Chief Protector C.F. Gale in Western Australia wrote: ”I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half¬caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.”

Removal and institutionalisation are not distant memories. Several of the relatively recent great West Australian Rules players, notably Maurice Rioli, Graham Farmer, Billy Dempsey, Ted Kilmurray and Syd Jackson had such beginnings. Many spent decades searching for their biological parents, for origins and identity. Jackson was removed at the age of two; he found his mother when he was 37. Removal, and the resultant wholesale trafficking in adoptions, continued until very recently.

The racist deeds were endless. In 1903, the Queensland Amateur Athletic Association tried to disbar all Aborigines, firstly, because they lacked moral character, then because they had insufficient intelligence, and finally because they couldn’t resist white vice. When all these criteria failed, the Association deemed them all ”professionals."

In the boom period of professional running, the names of every Aboriginal runner carried separate initials ¬”a” or ”h.c” or ”c.p” to denote Aboriginal, ”half caste” or coloured person. This was done, supposedly, in order to avoid ”misleading the public.” About what?

Frank Fisher from Cherbourg, Queensland, played Rugby League for Wide Bay against the visiting English team in 1936. The legendary Englishman Gus Risman wrote to Fisher saying he was the best player he had seen on the tour and invited him to join an English club. The white Aboriginal authorities refused, stating that one star from Cherbourg (cricketer Eddie Gilbert) was enough.

Fisher was Cathy Freeman’s grandfather. With this background, it was no surprise that the politically aware sprinter paraded the Aboriginal flag after winning both the 200m and 400m finals at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Those who deplored her ”un-Australian” behaviour have no understanding of Aboriginal history.

Jack Marsh, undoubtedly Australia’s greatest fast bowler at the turn of the century, was considered a certainty to tour with Joe Darling’s team to England, but was omitted because M.A. Noble felt he ”didn’t have class enough” to play for Australia. Cricketers L.O.S. Poidevin and Warren Bardsley had no doubt that ”class” meant colour.

Marsh was kicked to death in a street in Orange in 1916. Charged only with manslaughter, his two assailants were acquitted without the jury leaving the box. Judge Bevan’s opinion from the bench was that Marsh probably deserved it.

Eddie Gilbert was a small, wiry Aborigine from Cherbourg settlement, about 180 km from Brisbane. In his prime, he bowled with terrifying hostility and ranked second only to Don Bradman among Queensland’s cricket fans. Off a run of only four or five paces, he bowled Bradman for a duck in December 1931, after a five-ball spell of which Sir Donald wrote: ”He sent down in that period the fastest bowling I can remember - one delivery knocked the bat out of my hand and I unhesitatingly class this short burst faster than anything seen from Larwood or anyone else.”

Gilbert played 23 first class matches for Queensland, but the Aboriginal Protector wouldn’t pay his expenses. He kindly gave permission, however, for Gilbert to travel (though not in cars occupied by white players) and to play. He was always chaperoned to matches, in case he made contact with white ladies. The author, David Frith, wrote of Gilbert in The Fast Men: ”He lacked stamina, he was black and he came from the Cinderella State. Otherwise he may have become Australia’s first, and so far only, Aboriginal Test player.” The sad postscript is that Gilbert died in 1978 having spent 23 years in Wolsten Park asylum, where he was ill treated.

The sprinter from the Aboriginal settlement of Cummera (NSW)who was to become Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls and Governor of South Australia in 1976discovered early in his life that the only way ”to crack the white world” was to do better than the white man. In 1929, he won the Nyah Gift and then the Warracknabeal, second only to the Stawell Easter Gift in importance. Trying out for Carlton Football Club, he was rejected. Because of his colour, the club said, he smelled.

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Do we believe such despicable prejudice belongs in the past? Perhaps, in degree, it does. But only in degree - not  in nature.

Sport creates the illusion that all is well with the world. Embracing Cathy Freeman, appropriating her achievements, makes everyone feel good: Cathy laughing, Cathy running, Cathy the embodiment of youth and health and optimism . . . it tells us we’re progressing and that all is well with Black Australians.  But that simply isn’t so.

In 1993, the visiting International Olympic Committee told protesting Aboriginal delegations it wasn’t interested in abysmal social conditions, only in sports discrimination. Regrettably, the Redfern Legal Service and others didn’t discuss the ”sporting” conditions at Toomelah, Mornington Island, Hopevale, Kalumburu, Mowanjum, Yalata, Wilcannia and Kintore, among many others - conditions which portray not only state and national neglect and total social breakdown, but which also, contrary to the great illusion of sporting brotherhood, demonstrate that certain words simply don’t exist in the Aboriginal vocabulary or experience: words like track, oval, turf, pool, changeroom, gym, weights, sauna, trainer, coach, physio, manager and trophy.

Little has changed. In the 1890s, Frank Ivory played two Rugby Union matches for Queensland against NSW, and ”the half caste from Maryborough” was abused by the Sydney crowd because of his colour. A century later, sections of the audience at Lang Park still rant about ”coons.” In the Rugby Test against Scotland in July 1982, the Brisbane crowd booed every move of Mark and Glen Ella because they’d been chosen ahead of Queenslanders Roger Gould and Paul McLean. The Ellas felt they were playing Queensland, not Scotland. This was said at the time to be a classic case of state chauvinism, but there’s no doubt the Ellas’ Aboriginality figured in the crowd’s emotions.

Mark Ella talks of one or two disappointments in his career: one was this Ballymore debacle, which the press called ”an unbelievable and shameful act.” His other bitterness was the loss of his successful Australian captaincy. Much rubbish has been written about the needs of the ”conservative” versus the ”running game”, but there’s little doubt that Mark wasn’t considered by one or two power brokers to have ”class enough” to make the after-dinner speeches.

Several senior Age newspaper journalists over the years have reported (and still report) how well dressed, well educated ladies in the Members Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground scream: ”Kill the black bastard” or ”Go sniff your petrol” to the likes of the Krakouer brothers, McAdams brothers, Chris Lewis, Michael Long and Jeff Farmer.

As for Evonne Goolagong Cawley - the embodiment of that wave of feel good optimism and self congratulatory tolerance in the Sixties - two racist insults were a turning point, and a spur, in her career. When she was 16, one of her beaten opponents in Sydney referred to her as a ”nigger.” And during the 1980 Wimbledon final, an Australian Premier said he hoped she ”wouldn’t go walkabout like some old boong.

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In Australian Rules football once described by Aboriginal soccer player John Moriarty as ”a colonial bastion with colonial attitudes - there are some appalling case studies. For most of the 1980s the Fitzroy All Stars in Melbourne were denied entry into more senior leagues on the usual spurious grounds of too many teams, distance of travel, etc. In 1987, the Purnim Bears from Framlingham settlement, Victoria, won the Mt Noorat League grand final. The League then voted, four to three, to expel the competition premiers. The only reason given was that the League had the right to make such decisions. The famous Moree Boomerangs rugby league team in New South Wales has been banned from the regional competition for some five years now.

Following a football match won by St Kilda against Collingwood in 1993, The Sydney Morning Herald commented: ”The Collingwood cheer squad had decided to remind Nicky Winmar, an Aborigine . . . that he was one of them  rather than one of us, and they did so in the manner for which they are justly notorious . . . after the final siren he gave Pie cheer squad has good as he had received lifting his jumper and pointing to his skin . . . Winmar has never been more eloquent or effective for his cause or his colour than he was in that moment.” Collingwood Football Club president Allan McAlister told the television world that as long as ”they” behaved themselves like white folks off the field, they would be admired and respected. It would be better, he said, if they behaved themselves like human beings.

Encouragingly, the AFL’s draft Code of Conduct for the 1995 season introduced $1,000 fines for players guilty of using racial slurs or taunts, and $5000 for a second offence.

The NSW Aboriginal Knockout, the world’s biggest Rugby League competition (with more than 50 teams), has always been in strife with the administration and police - despite only one year of ”troubles.”

The 1989 carnival was held in Walgett, a town of about 2300 people. Police fears about an ”invasion” of 5000 Aborigines reached such paranoia that the chief superintendent of the region sought ministerial intervention to have the event moved to another town. In the end, the special task forces and tactical response people were called in to await Armageddon. There were only five arrests in the entire period.

Opposition to all black teams, including an Aboriginal league team in the rugby league Winfield Cup, persists. The expressed reason is that assimilation is the right way to go, that segregation is akin to South Africa. The real reason, as we know from the Aboriginal experience at Lake Tyers in Victoria and Cowra in NSW, is that teams don’t want to lose the services of their black players, many of whom are crucial to their success.

Do I endorse the concept of all-black teams? Yes, I do. Such teams give Aborigines a sense of identity and dignity, and are the opposite of apartheid because the players want to be separate. There’s a world of difference between straight exclusion on white terms and voluntary separatism by blacks.

Social and environmental conditions remain appalling. For example, the all-Aboriginal Rovers Football Club had some notable Australian Rules successes in the far west of South Australia, Ceduna way. Visiting in 1989, I was shown a photo of the 1958 premiership side. Would I like to meet Keith Willoughby? ”Why Willoughby?” I asked. Because he was the only surviving member of the team! This meant that 17 of 18 men didn’t make it to 50, perhaps 55. There is no genetic predisposition to want to die at those ages.

The universal philosophy of sport is that both competition and opportunities must be fair and equal for all. This hasn’t applied to our indigenous people - and still doesn’t. Although sport has been the passport to respect for a few, the odds have been monumental. Genuine racial equality in Australian sport remains disturbingly out of reach.