Eddie McGuire: License to Stumble

| June 3, 2013

After the Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes was called an “ape” by a 13-year-old girl, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire followed suit by suggesting Goodes could be used to promote the musical King Kong. Binoy Kampmark from RMIT University says this case shows the uglier features of sport and spectatorship in general.

The cauldron atmosphere of sporting competition can be scalding. Sometimes, these extend to the competitors, those gladiatorial marionettes of public fantasy. Other times, it consumes spectators.  A performer is in many ways a distortion – their distortion.

Casual racism has marked sporting codes across Australia for decades. It lurks in the sub-conscience as a demeaning reaction that manifests in moments of carelessness. It has a way of outing.

The reaction to AFL Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes is the stark representation of that tendency. The racial barbs directed at him were ‘casual’ but also impugning of him as a player of a certain race. The effects on him were not. His devastation is understandable, but the professionalism of a player is very much finding means to parry such assaults. He is, after all, contracted to do a job: to perform.

The presence of casual racism in a sporting environment that has a fruit salad of races is bound to happen. There are ugly players, and ugly spectators, such as the 13-year-old fan of Collingwood who made the “ape” remarks to Goodes to begin with.  “Racism has a face. It’s a 13-year-old girl,” observed the hurt player. There are even, as Eddy McGuire of the Collingwood Magpies has shown, ugly sporting presidents.

How their errors of judgment are treated, however, varies. The 13-year-old was taken away by security and interrogated.  “I think it was blown out, for a 13-year-old, it was blown out of proportion,” claimed the spectator’s mother (Herald Sun, 27 May 2013). The Collingwood president remains the top official of his club.

McGuire boasts a career of misjudgements. He is the Melbourne buffoon who has a habit of finding his misdirected foot in a very open mouth. The most serious to date were his “King Kong” remarks made in reference to Goodes, seen as a contravention of the AFL racial vilification policy. They were dismissed by McGuire as merely a “slip of the tongue”.

Slipping, for McGuire, is a regular matter. As a few journalists have remarked, McGuire is prone to a stumble that is bound to result in some social coma. The same person, as Miranda Devine noted for The Daily Telegraph (2 Jun 2013), who claimed that Western Sydney was merely the land of the felafel, who suggested he wanted to “bone” (that is, sack) newsreader Jessica Rowe during a torrid time at Channel 9.

According to Devine, the cultural prism in examining McGuire’s exploits is perplexing. In Melbourne, he is a loved demigod, or at the very least, a conman with a bag of tricks. In Sydney, he is a fool, “an oaf who surrounded himself with a posse of footy blokes as clueless about running a TV network as he was.”

That he is an oaf, and perhaps socially challenged, is an apt description of the McGuire case. In the Australian sporting culture, buffoons can be loved. They can also be forgiven for their trespasses. In this case, McGuire has found himself in a struggle between that acceptance – the stance taken by the Collingwood Football Club on the one hand – and those of his detractors on the other.

The statement by Collingwood’s vice-president Jack Kennedy takes up one side of the reaction. “While we accept that Eddie made a mistake that caused serious offence to Adam Goodes and many more, we balance this against the work Eddie and the board have done, and continue to do, to make Collingwood an institution in football and society that our entire ‘family’ can be proud of. One committed to fairness, equality and social justice.”

Some sympathy might be afforded Kennedy’s position. But it is one that is necessarily blinkered. Err but be forgiven. It is in your nature. In fact, it is Melbourne’s vocation, much in the manner of a divine one, to forgive McGuire. It has stretched all the way to AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, who said he was “absolutely comfortable” with the decision to retain McGuire as the club’s president.

The whole problem with the Goodes case is that spectatorship and sport is ugly to begin with. Authorities are in a permanent battle against its uglier features. To have a member of that establishment lose a handle on that effort is something that has struck home. But forgiveness, at least in the AFL, is bountiful for bumbling club presidents.