Racism was entrenched in the eighties. It infiltrated society, spreading like a virus from the home, to school, to the workplace and to sport.
Everyone had a label, pom, slope, wog or skip. That was how it was. Australia was multicultural but racism ensured the benefits of difference, with the exception of rice and spaghetti, remained segregated.
Racism seemed a part of Australia’s culture. It was inescapable. The abuse led to arguments and fights, which further insulated the community.
I was eleven when North Melbourne playedRichmondin the opening round of the 1982 season. It was a beautiful autumn day, an historic occasion for the VFL.
The Krakouer brothers, Jim and Phil, made their debut for North Melbourne on the same day as Maurice Rioli debuted for Richmond. It was also the first time the MCG’s electronic scoreboard was in operation, offering live television and replays.
North led by 21-points at three quarter time and ended up losing by three goals.
Jim kicked four goals from 17 possessions. Phil picked up 21 possessions and kicked a goal. Rioli kicked three goals from 21 disposals.
Rioli and the Krakouer brothers were the first Indigenous players I ever saw play live. It was some introduction toAustralia’s natural heritage. It was also my introduction to another version of racism.
I’d never seen an aboriginal before, not in the flesh. There were none at the primary school I went to or in the local community. My fascination at the MCG that day had nothing to do with skin. It was all about ability. I was also rapt they played for North.
Rioli and the Krakouer brothers made an immediate impact in an era when a lot of men crossed borders with big reputations and went home without success.
There were few indigenous players in the VFL back then, so they stood out. Their skill spooked opposition clubs and supporters. People went to the football just to watch them play.
People went to the football to abuse them too.
On 27 March, 1982, whenever Jim, Phil or Maurice got hold of the football, the abuse flew from all around.
I couldn’t understand how people who followed North were racially abusing Rioli. Richmond fans were offering the same to the Krakouer brothers. It was proof racial vilification, in most circumstances, was the fall-back option, the most basic of insults when small minds can’t manifest their anger in less offensive words.
Three years later, in 1985, Oak Park Football Club took their juniors to Arden Street to watch North Melbourne train, talk to the players and eat pies.
Jim Krakouer wasn’t training with the main group, instead running laps with Kevin Bryant. A kid from the under 12s munching on a pie at the fence called out as the duo jogged past.
‘Krakouer you black cunt.’
Kevin Bryant almost leapt the fence as Krakouer ran on impassively. Being used to racism surely couldn’t have quelled the anger that he’d been racially vilified by a kid. Krakouer expected to be vilified by the opposition. He wouldn’t have expected it at Arden Street during training.
North Melbourne made no protest. Krakouer and Bryant probably didn’t tell anyone. It was the eighties, and it was just a kid making a flippant remark. It happened all the time.
Nothing changed as the eighties became the nineties.
The VFL ignored the issue, on and off the field. Indigenous footballers, as they had done for a century, played under sufferance as opponents routinely used racial abuse as gamesmanship, a tool for distraction.
When the VFL became the AFL in 1990, racism remained a feature of the game, on and off the field. Not even Nicky Winmar’s famous gesture in 1993, lifting his jumper and pointing to his skin at Victoria Park, motivated the AFL to change.
Winmar opted for a passive approach to highlight the racism he endured. The Krakouer brothers, who’d retired by 1983, favoured their fists. But violence on the football field was frowned upon. If they got suspended, it was their fault for being too volatile. Racial abuse was irrelevant.
According to the AFL, racial vilification was fine, fighting was not.
In 1995, when Collingwood’s Damien Monkhurst racially abused Essendon’s Michael Long, it started a brawl. Long was just as indignant as the Krakouer’s and Winmar but refused to be placated.
The fallout forced the AFL to introduce the Racial and Religious Vilification Policy. If not for Monkhurst and Long, that policy might’ve taken another decade before it was introduced.
Aboriginal footballers are free to play football without fear of vilification from opponents. No one, it must be said, is vilified anymore. Racism has vanished from the field, but nothing has changed off the field.
Indigenous round saw Sydney’s Adam Goodes called an ape by a 13-year-old girl. Vision emerged of another Collingwood fan shouting out from high in the stands, give him a free because he’s black.
Then Eddie McGuire made a fool of himself by suggesting Goodes should help market a stage production of King Kong.
McGuire has apologised, just as the 13-year-old girl did. It hardly matters. Almost thirty years later, racism is still alive despite the protestations of the AFL, club officials and the players.
Back in 1985, as Jim Krakouer ran on after being abused by a kid at training, he must’ve known racism is a learned response. That kid had never seen an Aboriginal in the flesh before. His words must’ve originated beyond his mind. He just repeated them.
Racism has nothing to do with age or gender. It is driven by ignorance and stupidity.