“You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, but you will still have war.”

– Winston Churchill on Neville Chamberlain signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler

Appeasement has never been a policy to settle matters when the foe you are facing comes from a place of bad faith.

It’s a lesson the AFL has been forced to reckon with following the release of a documentary on the Adam Goodes saga, The Final Quarter, which documented the indigenous star’s experience of incessant booing by crowds after calling out racism.

In PR terms, the posture adopted by the AFL in response to the invective directed against Goodes at the time might best be described as emu-esque.

While not commenting is certainly a valid public relations response in certain circumstances where one doesn’t want to give oxygen to backward views, this wasn’t the occasion.

The invective was so obvious and the register so public, silence was not an option. Undoubtedly the AFL wished it would all disappear, but burying its head in the sand was no strategy. It wasn’t even neutral in its effects if that’s what the AFL was hoping for.

In fact it only exacerbated the problem. The silence served to demoralise those that supported racial equality while emboldening a racist core with a message that suggested public humiliation of an indigenous player was socially acceptable.

One of the problems with not speaking out immediately was that a mythology was allowed to grow up around the booing, which suggested Goodes was always booed, rather than the reality which was that he was incessantly booed only after taking a public stand against racial vilification.

The fact that a gang of far-right extremists felt confident enough to bring hate banners to the MCG was a sign of how out of control the situation had become.

What should the response have been?

Statements needed to be made as soon as the booing began to take a foothold, i.e. after the first game in which Goodes was booed.

Separating a small core of racists – whose existence revolves around peddling race-hate –from the average fan should have been the over-riding strategy; aligning the AFL experience with a message of inclusiveness and positivity for families, friends and individuals.

The football press in Australia is overwhelmingly supportive of multiculturalism in Australian Rules football. The AFL could have worked with the football media on storylines that would support the above strategy.

There were three key themes that should have been articulated at a press conference and continued through the AFL’s Media Department, and through all 18 AFL clubs.

The game is about enjoyment

While those booing Goodes wanted the argument to be about political correctness and people being able to boo and say whoever they want, the AFL needed to frame the debate as follows:

The game is about enjoyment but it’s not very enjoyable when you’re being racially vilified over the fence every week. It’s not fun for the player impacted, it’s not fun for their family, it’s not fun for their team-mates, and it’s not fun for the fans.

A narrative that placed the AFL within the positive context of a game to be enjoyed by all, sells a message of fun over invective and gives the footballing media and footballing insiders a platform for supporting that view.

Booing or bullying: take your pick?

The AFL and its stakeholders needed to articulate the difference between one-off booing related to an umpiring decision or piece of play, and when it steps over into bullying and vilification.

The facts needed to be laid out here. There was no booing of Goodes before the incident in which he was called an ape by a teenager, and incessant booing thereafter. The continual booing of Goodes has a racial foundation, and even if you don’t consider it racist to boo him, the effect is hurtful, indistinguishable from racialized booing and has now entered into bullying territory.

Any parents with kids who have been bullied will appreciate its unpleasant and we don’t want to encourage that sort of behaviour in our society and to suggest it’s okay. Full-stop, end of story.

Australian Rules has always been a multicultural game

The AFL has a proud history of being ahead of the nation when it comes to matters of race. It introduced anti-racial vilification laws in 1995, before the Keating government’s Racial Vilification Act of 1996. In that sense the AFL had already established its brand and defending Goodes should have been an extension of that.

Here was an opportunity to outline the proud indigenous and multicultural history of AFL. A series of historical articles on former indigenous and multicultural players should have been rolled out, building support and pride in the game’s inclusive history.

Alongside the stories a rash of case-studies – former indigenous, multicultural and player greats – should have been rolled out supporting the indigenous and multicultural game, and Adam Goodes.

The AFL and its media outreach might have asked current-day players to talk about how a slight against one of their players is a slight against the team, the club, and the game.

Events certainly got away from the AFL, which is why crisis media training is so important to organisations that want to anticipate, understand and articulate how to respond to such a crisis should it eventuate. Crisis media planning ensures when a situation such as the Goodes situation arises, you can be on the front foot with your messaging and brand management.

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.

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