SYDNEY (Reuters) - Months of relentless booing of Aboriginal football great and anti-racism campaigner Adam Goodes has ignited an uncomfortable public debate in Australia about race and how the country treats its indigenous citizens.
Goodes, a 35-year-old veteran of the popular Australian Football League (AFL) who was named Australian of the Year in 2014 for his rights work off the field, has twice won the Brownlow Medal as the league's best and fairest player.
Nonetheless he has for years been targeted by spectators, treatment that reached a fever pitch after he mimed throwing a spear at opposing fans during a mid-game celebration in May.
After another tirade of jeers during a game in Perth last weekend, Goodes has decided to take time out from football. He has kept his own counsel on the issue, hoping it will die off if starved of attention.
The unprecedented stream of vitriol has helped to draw attention to one of contemporary Australia's most delicate fault-lines - the often deplorable conditions facing many Aborigines more than two centuries after colonisation.
Those directing their opprobrium at Goodes - in the stands, on Internet comment boards and talk radio - say their target is a unsporting player with a victim mentality.
Many, however, call that a thin veneer for racist behaviour driven by anger over the attention Goodes has consistently drawn to a thorny issue.
"I don't know what else you need to do in Australia to be a good Australian," Andrew Ireland, CEO of Goodes' team the Sydney Swans, told reporters on Thursday.
"What we're talking about is a really complex issue that's currently sitting in the sports area and involves Adam, but I think it's something that constantly is part of Australia, and disappointingly so."
Aboriginal sports stars from other football codes have backed Goodes, vowing to show their support with indigenous dances on the playing field.
Linda Burney, chair of the Australian Rugby League's Indigenous Council and deputy leader of the opposition Labor party in News South Wales state, was quoted as saying in Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper that the situation was "bloody ugly".
“I think it is clearly racist and combines with tall poppy syndrome. You have a proud indigenous man who puts his head up ... and this happens," she said, referring to a tendency in Australia to cut successful people down to size.
"THIS MUST STOP"
Australia rarely talks publicly about the condition of its roughly 700,000 indigenous citizens, who track near the bottom of its 23 million citizens in almost every economic and social indicator.
Aborigines are 12 times more likely than other Australians to be imprisoned, live 10 years less on average and are nine times as likely to have their children taken away by the state. Alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide are rife.
Addressing these issues has proven tricky. A referendum to recognise Aborigines in the constitution has been on hold for years.
Goodes, whose mother was forcibly removed from home under a government assimilation policy from 1910-1970, has been a lightning rod for criticism.
Many trace the row to a 2013 incident in which he identified a 13-year-old girl in the crowd who called him an "ape", leading to her ejection from the stands. Many saw her as the real victim and have never forgiven Goodes.
Controversial radio shock jock Alan Jones, who has convicted of inciting racial hatred for his role in a series of race riots in Sydney in 2005, summed up the anger against Goodes.
"You know, the man is always a victim," he told Australia's Channel Seven TV network. "Then he became Australian of the Year and tells us that we're all racists. Every time he speaks, Australia is a racist nation."
New South Wales state Premier Mike Baird has accused hecklers of crossing the line from good-natured ribbing to something much darker.
"There are many things we pride ourselves on as Australians ... and good sportsmanship is right at the top of that list," he wrote on Facebook. "The relentless booing of Adam Goodes breaks this spirit of good sportsmanship. It must stop."
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)