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Adam Goodes Was Failed By The Game And Fans He Loved

It all started with a 13-year-old girl and a misunderstanding and ended with the retirement of one of AFL's best players.

When a teenager called the Sydney Swans' Adam Goodes an 'ape' during the AFL’s Indigenous Round in 2013, she was singled out by the player and removed from the grounds.

The day after the incident, Goodes, a dual Brownlow medalist and Australian of the year, held a press conference, where he said: "Racism has a face. Last night it was a 13-year-old girl". He also said the girl was too young to be blamed for her comment.

Unprecedented backlash followed, which included relentless booing of Goodes when he took the field and the shouting of racially motivated slurs.

The Final Quarter, a documentary that aired on Network 10 on Thursday evening, examined the period between 2013 and 2015 when Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes was confronted with a barrage of racist abuse as he took to the oval week after week.

Adam Goodes
Goodes was subject to a barrage of racial slurs. Photo: Getty Images.

Four years on from the saga, past AFL players have expressed their regret for not doing more to support Goodes in a Project special, hosted by Waleed Aly, The Project: Final Quarter Extra Time on Thursday evening. The special focused on the documentary and the racism surrounding Goodes.

"Looking back on it, I would have done something [about the racial slurs]," AFL Hall of Famer and first Indigenous Brownlow Medalist Gavin Wanganeen, told The Project.

Former Sydney Swans player and team-mate Jude Bolton expressed a similar sentiment.

"It was a difficult thing to go through ... what should have been a spectacular finish to an incredible career is just extremely sad."

The AFL is still struggling to figure out why Goodes was targeted for so long and to the extent he was.

Adam Goodes The Project
Some past AFL players wish they did more. Photo: The Project.

But for some, there is one very clear and uncomfortable answer -- deep-seated racism.

READ MORE: Goodes Documentary Maker Wants Australia To Have A Real Conversation About Racism

"We have been socially conditioned as a nation to see first nation people as the other," Richard Frankland, a filmmaker who supported Adam Goodes at the time told The Project's Waleed Aly.

"Adam got through the gate. He got to access wealth and power and he got to celebrity status, but he wasn't allowed to reach the next level, which was to be regarded as human by Australia."

The documentary unpacked the unprecedented backlash Goodes faced, as well as the way he was failed by the game and the fans he loved. Panellists of The Project said this was shrouded in a combination of lack of understanding and fear to define the booing as racially motivated.

"One of the problems in Australia is that some of us don't seem to know racism when we see it ... a lot of people out there just couldn't understand why, if you are a black man, you would be so offended by someone calling you an 'ape'," Chip Le Grand, The Australian’s Chief Reporter who wrote extensively on the saga said on the program.

Aussies weren't able to recognise the booing was a racist problem. Photo: Getty Images.

This lack of understanding was perpetuated in AFL executives failing to call out the spectator behaviour as racism.

"It was a failure in leadership, wasn't it really. At that moment they just needed someone to clearly stand up and say ... 'are we at risk of, arguably, the greatest indigenous player being heckled into retirement by a racist mob?'" Le Grand said.

"I still think there is no choice, you have to take a stand."

Despite the AFL being the first football code in Australia to introduce regulations around racial vilification, the "deafening" silence from the board is something current AFL bosses admit was an issue.

"I think taking too much time to determine how to respond [was a problem]," AFL Head of Social and Inclusion Policy, Tanya Hosch said.

"You can't fix a problem you can't talk about ... and the biggest loss would be if we didn't learn from the mistakes."

Lack of leadership from the AFL board was part of the problem. Photo: Getty Images.

But the management of the crisis could also have been improved by shock jock "knuckleheads" in the media, ABC Media Watch's Paul Barry told the program.

Barry told Waleed Aly that while the majority of the media did call out the booing as racism, a number of high-profile media personalities like Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Sam Newman took the incident involving the 13-year-old girl out of context.

And this rhetoric fuelled racist behaviour by AFL spectators for the years that followed.

READ MORE: Three Pieces Of Fake News The Adam Goodes Booers Believed

Paul Barry spoke to The Project about the media's role in the saga. Photo: The Project.

Four years on from the saga, the discussion has shifted to how the AFL, the media and all Australians can prevent a sickening clash of sport and racism from occurring again.

"I want us to challenge the national identity," Richard Frankland said.

"I want us to be courageous enough to say 'we need a new Australia,' where we see diversity as our strength and every one of us can call it home, safely."

Contact the author at skenna@networkten.com.au