Few athletes have the credentials to challenge Adam Goodes for the mantle of being THE Australian sportsman, which is why a racism debate is raging Down Under.
He may not have an international profile due to playing in the home-grown game of Australian rules football, but the Aboriginal star was twice voted the most valuable player in an Australian Football League season, and his achievements saw the Australian of the Year civic honor bestowed on him.
Australians tend to laud their champions, so the fact that crowds continue to loudly boo him when he plays for the Sydney Swans in the nation-wide competition has both concerned and confounded Goodes to the point where he's considering retirement.
Condemnation of the booing intensified after constant heckling when the Swans played the West Coast Eagles in Perth, Western Australia, last weekend. The Swans play at home this weekend, so there will be no booing, but there's no certainty Goodes will be available, even if he has decided not to retire immediately.
Swans club management has labelled the booing as racist. Other indigenous footballers and Aboriginal spokespeople have decried the abuse, saying it's a reflection of how their people are treated in society.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan stopped short of saying it was racially motivated, but said it was inexcusable regardless.
"Racism has no place in our game, and while I respect that people may have different views about what is happening to Adam, it is impossible to separate this issue from the issue of race," McLachlan said in a statement. "The booing of Adam Goodes is being felt as racism by him and by many in our football community.
"As such, I urge our supporters to understand the toll this is having, the message it is sending, and that it does not reflect well on our game."
The 35-year-old Goodes, who has an Aboriginal mother, was an uncontroversial and respected figure for much of his long career.
Tensions began to emerge in 2013 when he singled out a 13-year-old girl in the crowd who had called him an "ape", and she was taken from the ground by security in the full glare of a live telecast. While the league and all football officials supported Goodes in his actions, some fans and commentators questioned how the issue was handled, as the girl and her family became a target for abuse and threats in the following weeks.
Goodes was named Australian of the Year in 2014, which some critics questioned given the 2013 incident. Not retreating from the race issue, Goodes used the public platform to extend his consistent advocacy for Aboriginal causes, and make some comments over the vexed issue of race relations and European settlement of the nation; comments which some critics believed went too far.
Still, the constant booing of Goodes did not begin until this year, in a match against Hawthorn when he was booed every time he got involved in play. Hawthorn fans said it was motivated was anger at some past on-field clashes he had with Hawks players and his late-career habit of simulating fouls to draw free kicks.
Whatever the true motivation, fans in other games followed the example. Frustrated by the abuse, Goodes celebrated a goal against Carlton in a match in Sydney by running toward the pocket of opposing fans and performing an Aboriginal 'war dance' which ended with the mock throwing of a spear. It was another divisive moment -- some enjoyed his celebration of Aboriginal heritage, others worried that provocation of opposition fans could produce ugly reactions. The booing temporarily abated until last weekend when it was revived in the match in Perth. This time it was his indigenous teammate Lewis Jetta who acted on Goodes' behalf, performing his own war dance toward the fans and later saying he did it out of anger at the disrespect of a great player.
The issue has prompted a fierce debate about what is behind the abuse. Some, including his club chairman and several other Aboriginal players, have said it is pure racism. Others argue that no other Aboriginal player is subject to the same treatment, so that charge is disproven. To others, it is no more than a copycat action; they boo him because others do and are encouraged by evidence that it puts him, and his teammates, off their game. Some have pointed to his singling out of the young Collingwood fan, simulation for free kicks, and past on-field acts. Others have taken issue with his comments on racism.
AFL Players Association chief executive Paul Marsh was quoted as saying the union believed "Adam has been vilified for calling out racism, for expressing his views on Aboriginal issues, and for celebrating and promoting his proud cultural background."
"This is not something for which Adam should be vilified -- it is something for which he should be celebrated."
Aborigines are a minority of 600,000 in Australia's population of 23 million. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia, suffer poor health and lag behind in education. They are also incarcerated far more often than other Australians.
Despite that, indigenous Australians are proportionally well represented in sports, particularly in Australian rules football and in rugby league.
Nova Peris, an Aboriginal woman who won an Olympic gold medal as a field hockey player before switching to represent Australia in track and field and who is now a federal politician, said the taunting of Goodes was "disgusting" and "embarrassing."
"He's become a target," Peris told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "He's spoken out and it's made people uncomfortable."
AP Sports Writer Chris Lines contributed to this report.