Monday, August 3, 2015

The Goodes and Bads of Booing

Week in, week out, opposition fans have greeted Adam Goodes—superstar Sydney Swans footballer and strong advocate for Australia’s indigenous peoples—with a chorus of booing. Debate rages even within the AFL Commission around whether the booing is legitimate, or is done for racist reasons.

In the furor surrounding this controversy, social commentators and online pundits tend to argue past one another, brusquely dismissing the other side’s claims. However—as often in ethical issues—this story has two sides, each with something legitimate to say.

But—as often in ethical issues—this doesn’t mean a clear moral answer doesn’t emerge as to what to do now.

Legitimate booing
It’s often pointed out that some of the reasons fans give for booing Goodes seem weak. After all, if you consistently booed every opposition player who had ever played for a free kick, or who threw his weight around physically, your voice would be hoarse by quarter-time.

But these objections miss the point that, ordinarily, fans don’t need good reasons to boo opposition players. For example, playing at the Gabba in his landmark 400th game, Kangaroo Brent Harvey was jeered by the Brisbane crowd late in the game. Why? Probably simply in response to the raucous Kangaroos’ fans, who were cheering every time their milestone man touched the ball. Cheering, booing, chanting, clapping and trading jibes all happen spontaneously in the vocal, competitive, and often exciting environment that makes up a trip to the footy.

As well, some of the booing has an obvious enough origin: Goodes’ celebratory ‘war-dance’ during the AFL’s indigenous round, directed towards the opposition side’s supporters. It’s rare for AFL players to directly engage with opposition fans in any way, as it never fails to fire them up. (Players can also be sanctioned for deliberately offending opposition supporters.) An act like Goodes’ was bound to spark a raucous response. Some of the crowd might even have felt that responding with silence would be patronizing.

(Note that if Goodes had performed the dance at the game’s beginning, directing it towards the opposition team—like the New Zealand All Black’s haka – this justification would not apply. Just following this thought for a moment… Imagine if the AFL picked this up for the 2015 finals, and after the national anthem, perhaps any time both teams fielded Aboriginal players (which is usual), those players would then perform the dance in challenge to the opposition team. I predict the crowd’s cheering would drown out any forlorn boo-ers!)

In sum, defenders of the booing are correct that some of the booing stems from quite ordinary sources, innocent of any racial overtones.

Illegitimate booing
Yet the booing has continued well beyond its usual life-span—becoming more relentless as the months passed by. It became a ‘thing’: a widespread social phenomenon distracting from the game, rather than being a part of it.

As the action shifts from a sporadic occurrence to an ongoing phenomenon, the moral issues change. Individual booing now becomes part of a larger collective activity, with different consequences—such as potentially hounding a great player from the game.

So too, the passage of time allows the views of those affected to be known. Goodes himself has felt the need to take time out of the game (hopefully temporarily). Indigenous players, Goodes’ team-mates, and now the entire playing community through a recent team-captains’ statement have called for an end to the practice.

The specter of racism drives this widespread concern.

Undeniably, Australia has racists. Undeniably too, some of these racists like to go to football and racially vilify non-white players. This is why in 1993 Nicky Winmar had to famously take a stand against racist abuse, and why the AFL possesses, and routinely acts upon, its racial vilification policy. Some of these racists are bound to seize this opportunity, and use the cover of ordinary crowd booing to deliberately vilify Goodes.

In fact, we have good reason to believe some of the booing is unconsciously racist as well. It is a well-known psychological fact that (as Immanuel Kant once observed) we tend to present our actions – to ourselves as much as to others – in the best possible light. We find excuses and rationalizations for our uglier moments, trying to preserve our sense of personal moral decency. Since this holds true of all people, it remains true for football fans. We might not know which fans do this, but the uncomfortable truth remains that some are surely glossing over their unconscious racist sentiments with contrived excuses.

Since the ordinary reasons for booing tend to fade once the game finishes and the weeks pass, it seems plausible to conclude that these racial elements, conscious or unconscious, are substantial enough to fan the flames and drive the now widespread phenomenon.

Where does this leave us?
As a result, we have solid reason to believe a decent proportion of the booing is racist in nature. A significant portion of the crowd are racially vilifying Adam Goodes, and this vilification is (understandably) impacting upon him.

These facts change the action’s moral status.

Imagine you are a fan, and your reasons for previous booing have nothing to do with racism (you are an ‘equal opportunity’ knocker). The facts being what they are, you cannot now boo without facilitating racists vilifying Goodes. Perhaps worse, you yourself cannot be distinguished from such racists. An external observer—other people in the crowd, families, children, indigenous footballers, Goodes himself—know that there are racists vilifying him, and they cannot know that you aren’t one of them.

This, I think we can all agree, constitutes a decisive reason to stop the booing.

Ultimately, opposition supporters had reason to boo Goodes at various moments in the past, and they have every reason to be affronted by knee-jerk accusations of racism for their doing so. But the situation has now progressed to the point where there is compelling reason to stop.

(A first version of this blogpost was originally published by The Ethics Centre.)