The AFL great who overcame so much with no hint of bitterness

Eddie Betts’ grandfather died on the floor of a Port Lincoln prison cell. His own dad spent time in jail. When he was eight years old, he was already being harassed by the Kalgoorlie police – “the monarch” is what local Indigenous people called them. He was arrested for stealing a spoon. “It was a reality for us,” he writes in his autobiography, which was released this week. “It was an expectation.” Family violence and alcohol abuse were rife. The intergenerational side effects of colonialism and the stolen generation shaped him. “We became experts on managing situations, reading people, and diffusing tension.”

He was raised with strong female influences, and never went without. Family, culture and sport were everything. When he moved to Melbourne, he could barely read or write. He was aching for home, and for his community. His first AFL coach was Denis Pagan, a ferocious figure. His first opponent was Glenn Archer, one of the toughest footballers to play the game. His first goal of the year award netted him a Toyota Aurion. Shortly after, he was pulled over by two police officers, demanding to know whose car he was driving.

Few football images are more indelibly etched than that of Betts crammed in a forward pocket at the Adelaide Oval – his eyes dancing, his shorts in danger of sliding off, his opponents tottering drunkenly at his feet. Few footballers could inspire two sets of cheer squads to chant his name. Few footballers could kick a 50-metre reverse torpedo goal, on their wrong foot, from about six rows back, and explain it with a straight face – “I just make stuff up.”

The main talking point from his book however, concerns the Adelaide Crows camp in 2018. Later that season, the two directors who had facilitated the camp conducted a press conference at the MCG. “We now consider the matter closed,” one of them said. But it was never going to go away. Reading Betts’s recollections of the mind training, one is struck by how utterly demented it was – how pointless, how infantile.

It was the complete antithesis of what Richmond, West Coast and Collingwood were doing during that period. At Adelaide, they practised their facial expressions as they ran through the banner. They’d scream “Fuck you!” at one another, thrusting their groins and maintaining eye contact. And then there was the Power Stance – chest out, arms straight, fists clenched. They looked like idiots. It was straight from the sandpit. The Richmond players, who were lined up opposite, were laughing at them. They eschewed all the bullshit, kept their cool as the Crows jumped to an early lead, and gradually ground them to dust.

We can laugh at how ridiculous and self-defeating it was. The camp, however, was no laughing matter. Betts claims in the book that the stunts included the airing of confidential information from a private counselling session, and the co-opting of Aboriginal cultural rituals. At one point one of the men was screaming at Betts, telling him what a shit father he was because he’d been raised by his mother. Betts was left paranoid, angry, “weirdly secretive”, “snappy at the kids” and out of the Crows’ leadership group.

The camp wore heavily on Eddie Betts. But he also found his voice. “Being Black,” he writes, “I have no choice but to be political in order to survive in Australia.” Every time there’s a racist slur, it’s Aboriginal footballers like Betts who do the heavy lifting, the consoling, the explaining, the forgiving. Every time there’s one of these incidents, we get a sense of their fury, their exhaustion. Every time, you suspect, it takes another piece of them.

“Hopefully Eddie’s getting over that,” the Crows football director said on Triple M on Wednesday. There was an instant defensiveness there, a tonal readjustment that was totally predictable, really tedious, and very Australian. His CEO, who wasn’t at the club when the camp took place, at least had the decency to apologise.

Eddie Betts may never get over “that”. But there’s not a skerrick of bitterness or resentment in him, or in his book. Aboriginal people have lit Olympic flames, captained Australian rugby teams, won world title fights and triumphed at Wimbledon. Eddie Betts never won a flag, never won a Brownlow, and never won a best and fairest. But he stands as tall as any of them. Few sportspeople have overcome more, taught us more, and brought us more joy.