SYDNEY (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called on Australian Rules fans to show "respect and civility" to Adam Goodes as support for the Aboriginal footballer continued to build on Friday.
Goodes, one of the best players to have played the hugely-popular indigenous football code, was given an indeterminate leave of absence by his Sydney Swans club after being jeered relentlessly and racially abused in Perth last weekend.
It was the latest case of vilification that Goodes has faced in Australian Football League (AFL) matches over the last year, incidents which have embarrassed the sport and triggered a nationwide debate over racism.
Supporters of Goodes say the abuse results from the 35-year-old's outspoken advocacy for the rights of indigenous Australians, while critics say the barracking is aimed solely at the player as an individual and that he is "playing the victim".
Abbott, in his first comments on an issue which has convulsed the nation this week, said Goodes deserved a basic level of respect even if people did not agree with his views.
"The last thing we want in Australia is anything that smacks of racism," he told Radio 2SM on Friday.
"I can understand why he's upset because no one should be subject to taunts, they particularly shouldn't be subject to racial taunts.
"Adam Goodes is a good bloke and he's a great player and I hope he'll be treated with respect and civility."
The Swans have stood Goodes down for Saturday's match against Adelaide at the Sydney Cricket Ground but still expect him to see out a season he had already said would be his last.
Several AFL clubs have planned gestures of support for Goodes during this weekend's matches and the captains of all 18 teams released a statement calling for an end to the barracking.
"Enough is enough," it read. "Enjoy the game, celebrate the success. But don't boo, jeer or taunt players because of who they are or what they stand for.
"We encourage supporters to demonstrate zero tolerance and report any behavior which vilifies a person on the basis of their personal characteristics, such as race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."
Conservative commentators were joined by Australian cricketing great Shane Warne on Friday in maintaining that fans have a right to boo who they want.
"For me, I don’t think that the stuff that they’re doing to Adam Goodes is racist," he told Triple M radio station.
"It’s their prerogative. Australia can have an opinion. You’re allowed to have an opinion -- that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right -- but you’re allowed to have an opinion."
An editorial in The Australian said the barracking had gone too far but the newspaper thought the essential sporting nature of the Australian fan would ensure it would stop.
"Irreverent crowds didn't like being told they were racist and won't like being told what to do," it read.
"But Australia's sporting crowds tend to know when someone has overstepped and, we expect, will put an end to this senseless booing."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing Peter Rutherford)