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Closing the Gap: Brett Goodes on footy and Aboriginal Australia

Troy Daniel  May 30, 2018 1:00 PM

Brett Goodes casts a wider lens and acknowledges those that have carried on the Nicholls/Winmar/Long legacy.

Brett Goodes casts a wider lens and acknowledges those that have carried on the Nicholls/Winmar/Long legacy.

There’s a responsibility that comes with being an Indigenous player in today’s game according to Brett Goodes, and it’s a responsibility that extends well beyond the confines of Etihad Stadium, Adelaide Oval or the MCG.

It’s a path well tread by people like Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, and Sir Douglass Nicholls before them, and it stretches into the homes and hearts of Aboriginal Australia.

“It’s bestowed on you, it’s not something you choose to do,” Goodes told westernbulldogs.com.au in the lead up Indigenous Round, named after Nicholls for the third year running.

“Unfortunately for us Aboriginal people we have to be because of the history and challenges of our people. We're in the minority, we're marginalised.  There’s a gap there and we need to close it."

What began as a list of Goodes’ top five indigenous players he’d seen in his time in footy evolved into something much bigger when we caught up with him this week: a celebration of Indigenous achievements on, but most importantly off the field.

“It’s not all about on-field, it’s what the guys stand for and what they can do off-field as well,” he said.  “They’ve contributed to the game, but it’s their contribution to our people that we should talk about.”

We caught up with Goodes at Java Lounge in Ballarat, just around the corner from the Club’s headquarters on Mair Street in 2017, less than 10 minutes from Mars Stadium.

If there’s one thing that stands out about the 33-year-old it’s his pride in his people, and in particular, his admiration for those that have used their status as footballers to give back.

So, while the list remained, he was reluctant to focus solely on football.  Rather, for this week in particular, he wanted to cast a wider lens and acknowledge those that have carried on the Nicholls/Winmar/Long legacy.

5. Eddie Betts.

Betts has been in the news this season for both good and bad reasons. 

On-field, he’s moved into the discussion of the best small forwards to play the game, but has had to deal with some ugly race-related incidents off the field as well.

For Goodes, Betts’ work off the field as a mentor to young players doesn’t get the attention it deserves. 

“Obviously he’s an absolute superstar player, you can’t doubt him there.  He’s so dangerous and can kick a goal from anywhere, but I think his off-field work, what he’s done for players, is underrated. 

“And not just indigenous players, but non indigenous players too.”

A natural leader, Betts has that special ability to make people better, not just as players, but as men, says Goodes.

“What he’s able to do for indigenous players and players he plays with, including the non-Indigenous players, he's a real inclusive guy.  They thrive having Eddie around.”

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4. Shaun Burgoyne

Goodes gets visibly animated when talking about Burgoyne the player, ‘they call him Silk for a reason,’ he laughed.

A great player, that speaks for itself.  What is he, a four time premiership player?

“You watch him when the game is tight.  It’s head to head, last quarter and you can see Clarko go ‘Righto, let’s put silk in the middle of the ground and let him loose, and the next minute he kicks two and the Hawks get up again.’”

A founding member of the AFL Players’ Indigenous Advisory Board, Burgoyne’s off-field work is significant, Fairfax calling him the AFL’s ‘foremost indigenous voice’ when he was appointed as Chair in March, 2016.

“He’s lead the way in the space in looking after Indigenous players and having a really strong, cultural pathway,” Goodes said.

“He’s been a great strength for Hawthorn in being able to get their indigenous players in the space they need to play great footy like Cyril (Rioli) and (Bradley) Hill, and the guys they’ve had in the past.”  

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3. David Wirrpanda

Remarkably, Wirrpanda holds the record for the youngest player to ever pull on a West Coast Eagles guernsey when he debuted in 1996 at just 16-years-old.

One the one hand he’s an All-Australian and a key member of the Eagles’ 2006 premiership team, but it’s only half the Wirrpanda story.  For Goodes, it’s fitting that ‘Wirra’ is acknowledged in the round named after his uncle, Sir Doug Nicholls, a man the 36-year-old told PerthNow had been a ‘benchmark’ his whole life.

Wirrpanda set up the Wirrpanda Foundation in 2005 to improve the quality of life for indigenous people across the four pillars of education, employment, justice and sport.

“I loved him as a player, and I’m full of admiration for what he has done with the Wirrpanda Foundation over the last decade.  Through his work he’s made genuine strides in closing the gap, and he’s done it by empowering local Aboriginal role models to make a difference.” 

“His uncle would be proud of him, and I’m proud of him.”

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2. Michael O’Loughlin

A 303-game veteran of the Sydney Swans Football Club, a premiership player and a member of the AFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century, O’Loughlin’s impact on-field ranks with the greats, but for Goodes, it’s his position as an indigenous leader off the field that he’d rather talk about.

“Although you haven’t seen much in the media, what he’s been able to achieve off-field post career deserves recognition,” he said.

O’Loughlin is a co-founder of the GO Foundation along with Brett’s brother Adam, a program that provides education scholarships for indigenous children, as well as founding CMC Indigenous Services, a cleaning and property maintenance company that has created countless opportunities for the indigenous community.

“Obviously he’s done a lot of work with the GO Foundation but he’s created this indigenous owned and operated company from scratch and it’s flourishing.

“So what he’s been able to achieve in the business world is just as important as what he’s been able to achieve on the footy field. 

“Because now he’s not only a mentor for his on-field achievements, but off-field as well with all he’s been able to achieve. You can’t help but look up to him for those reasons as well.”

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1. Adam Goodes

It was one of Brett Goodes’ proudest moments in football, when Western Bulldogs captain Robert Murphy tossed the coin before the Club’s Round 18 clash with Essendon wearing his brother Adam’s number 37 jumper.

It was a show of support for Goodes when the booing saga of 2015 was engulfing the former Sydney champion. 

A few years have passed since that time and though it might be difficult to recall the intensity of the storm surrounding Goodes at the time, Brett remembers it well.

“I remember opening the paper one day and the first six pages in the Herald Sun or something, they were all about him and the booing, and on the seventh page there had been a bomb go off in Syria and all of these people had died,” he recalled.  

“I just couldn’t get my head around it.”

What makes Adam a hero in his brother’s eyes is that he stood up for what he believed in at great personal cost, and the fact that it’s because of him that the national conversation around racism and indigenous disadvantage continues to this day.

“He was doing work in this space way before any of this happened to him, but this unfortunate situation created an opportunity,” he said.

“He could have just stepped away and said, ‘this is too hard, it’s hurting me personally, and I don’t need to put myself in this situation any more,’ but he didn’t.

“There’s a gap that’s there for our people in all areas, life expectancy the main one, he could have easily stepped away, but instead, he took it on, embraced it, and now he’s this great spokesman for our people.”

Michael O’Loughlin probably summed it up best when he spoke to Fairfax in 2015.

"If it's not Adam and it's not me talking about it, who is it?"

"Do we leave it to other people? We have a profile, we're fortunate to make a career out of AFL footy and the lessons we've learned along the way.”

Despite retiring in 2015 after 372 games, two Brownlow’s and two premierships Goodes’ work in the community lives on through the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF).

Honourable mentions: Jason Mifsud, Chris Johnson, Andrew McLeod, Roger Hayden, Gavin Wanganeen, Nathan Lovett-Murray, Xavier Clarke, Michael Johnson, Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Aaron Davey, Belinda Duarte (non-playing), Paul Vandenbergh (non-playing).