Modern Times

In 2010, a 94-year old Frenchman named Stephane Hessel wrote a short essay entitled Indignez-vous. The veteran of the French Resistance, tortured in a concentration camp in Dora before he escaped during a transfer to Bergen-Belsen, asserted in the essay that indignation is a precious motive that must be expressed.

As a citizen, each person is encouraged to participate in our democracy. Each voice contributes to the cacophony of a public discourse in which participation is encouraged. When elite athletes, amplified by notoriety and recognition, voice an opinion, it is often heard above the din. Few athletes choose to grasp the opportunity, and those who do are often considered with scepticism. Adam Goodes is an athlete who wishes to express his views on issues other than football. And he is black. Lilian Thuram was a protagonist in golden era of French soccer that included victories in both the World Cup and European Championship. Thuram, also, is black. He arrived in metropolitan France at the age of nine, having been born and raised in Guadeloupe. The success enjoyed by the national team during his era held great meaning to the French people. Then President Jacques Chirac described the semi-final victory against Croatia in which Thuram scored two goals as “the most beautiful day in French sport”. In 2006, Thuram bought tickets to a match between France and Italy and gave them to 70 asylum seekers recently evicted from the Parisian ghetto Cachan. It was interpreted by some as a political gesture and criticised by many conservative commentators and politicians. One member of parliament, Yves Jégo, asserted that Thuram was a “great sportsman, but has shown himself to be a paltry figure on the field of politics”. It is conceivable that any athlete who had made such a gesture at that moment would have been criticised by the incumbent conservative government, but the fact that he was also speaking from the perspective of a member of an ethnic minority made it certain. Thuram had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honour, following the World Cup. An athlete feted for his contribution on the field, he was asked to sit at the table of French national life, then told not to speak. He declined. Any person – politician, public intellect, journalist or public figure – who contributes to public discourse in Australia must accept the possibility that their opinion will be opposed by at least a healthy minority. As most people are naturally suspicious of efforts to politicise sport, athletes are at even greater risk of condemnation for holding an opinion, and for exercising their democratic right to make their opinion known. Goodes was Australian of the Year in 2014. As Rosie Batty is using her status of Australian of the Year this year to draw attention to the need to address and eliminate domestic violence, so Goodes used the status of Australian of the Year to speak on issues close to his heart. Like Thuram, he was awarded his nation’s highest civilian honour and, like Thuram, he was criticised for using his elevated public profile to draw public attention to issues close to his heart. If the reaction to Goodes and Thuram is due to an inclination to consider athletes as unthinking, their value confined to the sporting field, then such reasoning should be condemned. Not all athletes are unthinking, but all citizens should be encouraged to make their voice heard. It is more likely, however, that both Goodes and Thuram were condemned because many people still find disquieting the voice of individuals from minority groups. There may be 71 indigenous players currently playing the AFL, and there have been dozens of players of African descent who have played for the French national team. But not all have the desire or courage to make their voice heard. When one considers the treatment Goodes has received this season, even more courage will be required in the future. Public intellectual Waleed Aly pierced the banal ramblings of the conservative establishment when he asserted that “Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place. And at that moment, the minute someone in a minority position acts as though they’re not a mere supplicant…we lose our minds.” This remains an unresolved issue in Australia, as in France. In a functioning democracy, agreement should not be assumed but one’s right to speak should be encouraged. To applaud the contribution minority groups make to our society yet deny full participation to our public life is to offer a seat at the table, so long as they sit in silence. @AndrewHunter__