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Australia is no different to America when it comes to people of colour

Then George Floyd is killed in America by a police officer and the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ does not ring quite as clearly in my mind.

Floyd’s death has resonated here. A massive turn out in Perth on Monday night in the heart of the city made it clear that the death of an unknown American has meaning. The reason for this is that outrage and sadness driven by social media means people can connect easily. They can speak out and express themselves.

For Hawthorn forward Chad Wingard, the moment has meant he is speaking out by not speaking.

Wingard has taken the stance that he will not be conducting interviews other than what he has been contracted to do. That is his right. But it is in the silence that meaning is made. He has chosen instead to directly use his social media platforms to highlight the issues of police brutality globally and in Australia, and get Australians to think of the long-term issues that stemmed from things like the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Australia in this sense is no different to America where people of colour, that is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, continue to suffer, not just in terms of dying in custody but because of a system that does not seem to care, not just in terms of blatant racism but institutional issues, such as constitutional recognition, health, education and Closing the Gap measures. At a time when COVID-19 has stripped so much back, care is the very thing that needs to be at the foremost of our minds and our actions.

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We only have to turn our minds back to the horrible situation of Mr Ward in 2008 to understand the yawning gap of care. Arrested for drink-driving, the Warburton elder and artist was essentially cooked to death in the back of a paddy wagon that was not fit for a dog. I speak about this because I can. I speak about this because it shows that the system is broken. To remember this is to ensure that our memories stay alive and our voices will be heard.

Just as Winmar, Long and Goodes all made a stand about prejudice in Australia, they also paid a price for speaking out. Winmar found he could not go anywhere in Australia without people talking about him raising his jumper and calling out racism. Long, having received abuse, took the AFL to task and held the line to make change. Even when he did, he still felt the need to walk to Canberra to meet with Prime Minister John Howard to talk about Indigenous health and how dire it was. Goodes, feeling he needed to use his platform to speak out against crowd abuse, was booed out of the game by the crowd.

We only have to think about these incidents and the connection to NFL San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. The criticism and attacks on him were immense and echoed those that Goodes experienced. He too was drummed out of the game, with many feeling he was an athlete so all he should concentrate on was sport.

Taking a knee to make a stand: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, centre, kneels during the playing of the US national anthem before an NFL game in 2016.

Taking a knee to make a stand: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, centre, kneels during the playing of the US national anthem before an NFL game in 2016. Credit:AP

The thing that people forget is that elite athletes are people too. They live in the world. They watch the news. They talk with their loved ones. They feel and they think. So, to suggest that sports people don’t respond to the world they live in and simply kick a goal, tackle, train and eat well, simply for the benefit of our enjoyment and recreation, is not just ridiculous but insulting.

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For me being in the world means being actively engaged. How can I not? The issues that impact upon me and my family, whether it is COVID-19, an Aboriginal elder dying in the back of a paddy wagon, or a black man asphyxiated to death in broad daylight by police means I have a choice.

I choose to stand up and speak but I also respect the stance of Wingard – to let the silence do the talking and in that silence start to consider what all these things mean to us, how we might choose to think of a better future where deaths in custody become a thing of the past, not just for people of different backgrounds but for white people also.

Des Headland is the chair of the Indigenous Player Alliance that advocates on behalf of the Indigenous men and women, who have played in the AFL and AFLW. He played for the Brisbane Lions and Fremantle from 1999 to 2010.

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