Date posted: 01/12/2016 6 min read

Adam Goodes on longevity, leadership and tackling racism

AFL legend Adam Goodes is using leadership skills learned in sport to tackle racism to try and make Australia a fairer society

In brief

  • Adam Goodes was Australian of the Year in 2014 for his advocacy against racism
  • Goodes credits his leadership skills to the expert mentorship of his captains and coaches
  • He is involved in the Recognise campaign, the Racism Stops with Me campaign and the Go Foundation

Photography by Nic Walker

100 per cent effort, 100 per cent of the time. That’s how Adam Goodes chooses to live life — on and off the field.

“I like to inspire people by my behaviour. It’s all about your actions. If people are doing the right thing then that’s what creates change, that’s what makes you want to follow in their footsteps,” he says.

On the pitch, the Sydney Swans champion cuts a muscled Adonis figure standing at 1.94m tall. As twice-winner of Australian rules football’s Brownlow Medal, he’s feted as a fair player and is a proud “Adnyamathanha man” and member of the Indigenous Team of the Century.

Since 1999, when Goodes made his Swans debut aged 19, winning the season’s Rising Star Award, he’s reached the 300 game mark more quickly than any other player in Australian Football League (AFL) history.

Some players might be content with such sporting achievements but Goodes doesn’t want to be remembered for just kicking a ball around — and given his rising national profile that seems unlikely.

In 2014, aged 34, Adam Goodes became the first VFL-AFL footballer to be named Australian of the Year, chosen for his leadership and advocacy in the fight against racism.

In his acceptance speech, Goodes encouraged all Australians to “break down the silos between races” and treat “people the way you want to be treated”. And he used the platform the award gave him to promote causes he’s passionate about.

“Eliminating domestic violence against our women and children, the Recognise campaign to get constitutional change and the Racism Stops with Me campaign. That was the goal for the year,” he says.

So how does a footballer transition to become a leader in society?

“By believing in your actions, in yourself and who you are. A good leader has to be able to sacrifice his ego and motives for what’s best for the organisation, for what’s best for the team. If they see something that goes against what the business is, or the behaviours, or core values, they will challenge someone about it.”

Making a stand

And this is what Goodes did on 24 May 2013 in the opening match of the AFL Indigenous Round against the Collingwood Magpies when a 13-year-old girl called him an “ape” from the stands. Goodes stopped the game and demanded the young Magpie supporter be ejected from the grounds.

“It was an instinctive decision that that was the right thing to do,” he says.

The highly visible incident thrust Goodes into the media spotlight. Publicly he urged that the girl not be vilified, insisting that she did not understand the meaning of the racial slur.

“I was 13 once, a long time ago. I have no doubt that I was calling people names. As hurtful as that was to me, she’d obviously learned it from someone else. I have a lot of empathy for her. It’s the people around her who need to be educated.”

Goodes is no stranger to racial abuse. As a mixed-race child — his father is of European descent, his mother is Aboriginal — he’s been called names from both sides. Still, it had been over ten years since he’d personally faced any direct comments.

“I thought racism had been eliminated around me. That all came crashing down on that night.”

So was it a turning point? Goodes thinks about this.

“No. It was just another incident in my life. What it did was create conversations in the schoolyard with parents, families, teachers and within football codes. What is acceptable and what is not? What is casual racism? All of the conversations that came from that were positive. Obviously it was a really horrible situation for myself and the 13-year-old girl but hopefully we can all look back and say we learned a lot from it.”

Since then, in a couple of matches, he has faced boos from the crowd in what appears to be backlash. Goodes doesn’t let it bother him.

“I’ve never been one to focus on the negative. If I did, then I wouldn’t leave my room to be honest. I’m a very positive person. I always try and live life by staying in the moment and giving those people who are like-minded my time and effort.”

I’ve never been one to focus on the negative. If I did, then I wouldn’t leave my room to be honest. I’m a very positive person. I always try and live life by staying in the moment and giving those people who are like-minded my time and effort.

On the field, as in life

In his early years, Goodes displayed flashes of sporting brilliance, but lacked consistency. He admits there were questions about his “mental toughness”.

Over his 16-year football career he’s overcome repeated knee injuries, played ruck and wing, and progressed to become one of the Swans’ best scorers.

In 2002, when Paul Roos became head coach, a key set of leadership behaviours was introduced to transform the Swans culture, create the club’s first leadership group and give players a sense of team ownership.

The following year, in 2003, Goodes received his first Brownlow Medal, and invited his mother, Lisa May, to the awards night. After a drought of 72 years, the Swans went on to win the premiership in 2005 and 2012.

In a January 2014 article in The Australian, Roos described how Goodes wasn’t a natural leader.

“It didn’t come as easily to him as some people think. He had to learn his craft … He had to learn to lead.”

Goodes says this experience was central to his success.

“These behaviours are not only in place to become better footballers, but also better people.”

Today, Goodes credits his football captains and coaches with giving him expert mentorship. Fellow Swans player, and his cousin, Michael O’Loughlin has also been a steady hand since the young Goodes left his tight-knit family home in Victoria to move to Sydney.

In 2009 the pair founded the Goodes O’Loughlin (GO) Foundation with a vision “to save the world”.

Since then, they’ve partnered with the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) to fund scholarships for indigenous students. When the first 11 scholarships, costing A$1m, were awarded last December, Goodes felt “so proud”.

Ancestry traced

As the eldest of three boys, Goodes grew up quickly, taking on the role as man of the house when his mother found herself raising her family alone. Only as an adult did he begin to understand the sacrifices and “struggles she went through”.

In a bold thoughtful essay titled “The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice”, published in The Australian Game Of Football (2008), Goodes wrote: “To understand what it means to be indigenous, you need to understand that we come with baggage. Every one of us.”

In his case it is the fact that his mother is a member of the stolen generations, who was separated from her parents and siblings aged five.

When Goodes was approached to retrace his ancestry in the SBS television series Who Do You Think You Are? he jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s something I’ve been searching for, for a long time, to find out who I am.”

In the programme, Goodes discovered extended family from the Adnyamathanha tribe still living in the Flinders Ranges. In a poignant scene, an elder welcomed Goodes back, painting his face with ochre.

“To find out a piece of my heritage and to know that there are still people speaking the language and doing ceremonies was quite amazing,” he says.

“Knowing that I could tap back into my spirituality, to still have culture that has been living and breathing in this country for over 40,000 years, was a very personal moment.”

As he faces what is likely to be his last football season, Goodes is on the cusp of stepping into wide new arenas.

He continues raising awareness of the Recognise campaign, which aims to change the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — including removing the constitutional ability to ban people from voting based on race.

He will also be working with the GO Foundation to raise more funds and encourage businesses to create career pathways for the young scholarship students.

He “definitely” sees himself working with government but, for now, has ruled out politics.

To pitch yourself into the race debate is not for the faint hearted. Goodes remains sanguine about the challenges to come—perhaps because of his 100 per cent commitment to the causes he believes in.

When the pressure is truly on, this is what keeps him centred.

“The things I’ve been putting my neck on the line for are really important issues. I think if not me, who? I find tremendous support from friends and family and from people I don’t know. As many naysayers as there are out there, there are hundreds upon thousands of people who do agree and give me support.”

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

Search related topics