While at Merbein, Goodes attended primary school at Merbein West Primary School in 1986 and it was there that he began to play Australian rules football. He moved with his family to Horsham, Victoria, where he played football at high school and represented at Under 16 and Under 18 levels. He began playing with the North Ballarat Rebels at 16 in the Victorian Football League and played in a winning premiership side where he was scouted by the Sydney Swans.
Goodes was drafted by Sydney into the Australian Football League as the No. 43 pick in the 1997 AFL Draft, Sydney's third round draft pick. He spent the 1998 season in the reserves competition, but broke into the first team the following year and went on to win the league's Rising Star Award.
During 2000 and 2001, Goodes played in a variety of positions, developing his game but lacking consistency at times. He played every game during this period. In early 2002, however, his form had slumped and it had been suggested that he may be dropped. However, coach Rodney Eade resigned mid-season and under interim (later permanent) coach Paul Roos, Goodes found himself playing more in the ruck. In the second half of that season his form improved immensely. After injuring his knee twice in the ruck, he moved to play on the wing and went on to win two Brownlow Medals.
In 2003, Goodes returned to the ruck position for significant parts of the year in what became his best season so far. He played a critical role in the Swans' revival and eventual preliminary final game that year. In particular, his efforts were crucial in the Swans' win against Port Adelaide in the qualifying finals.
Goodes had an indifferent 2004, just like his team who only managed the semi-finals stage of the finals series. He did not repeat his efforts of 2003, mainly due to knee injuries, yet he still managed to play every game. The knee injuries were due to an awkward fall during the season while playing in the ruck against the West Coast Eagles. Many expected Goodes to have suffered a posterior or anterior knee ligament damage, but he battled on. After this injury, coach Roos announced that Goodes' rucking days were over and that he would be used in other positions. He played in the backline for the remainder of 2004.
Goodes returned to form in 2005, playing mainly in the midfield. His year was highlighted with a near match-winning 33 disposals in round 18 against the Adelaide Crows. He played well in the 2005 Grand Final, kicked a goal and gathering 20 possessions as the Swans won their first premiership since 1933. He was also awarded life membership of the Swans after playing his 150th game during the year.
In Round 7, 2006, Goodes played his 150th consecutive match, a notable effort with the injuries he had in 2004. By the end of the 2007 season he had played 191 consecutive matches. He returned to the ruck position in 2005 and 2006, but only occasionally around the ground and not at centre bounces where his knee injury occurred.
In 2006 Goodes had another notable year and again won the Brownlow Medal. He came into the count as a heavy favourite and became the twelfth player to have won two or more Brownlow Medals, the first Aboriginal to win two and the first player to win two with a non-Victorian club. Goodes said of his performance, "I'd like to think with another couple of years in the midfield I could improve again.". Goodes had a poor performance in the first half of the 2006 Grand Final against the West Coast Eagles in a repeat of 2005. However, he turned on the heat in the second half with his team coming close (losing by one point).
At the end of the year he was once again selected in the All-Australian team.
In seasons 2007 and 2008 saw Goodes drop off in form but was still instrumental in Sydney's finals campaigns. He had Brownlow Medal-threatening suspensions and charges during both years. In 2008 he missed games either through suspension or injury for the first time since 2000. His 2007 season ended strongly for him as he received 16 of a possible 18 Brownlow Medal votes in the last six games of the year.
Goodes played his 250th game in 2009, against Geelong. He was arguably one of the best players throughout the 2009 season, playing in the forward line because of Barry Hall's mid-season departure. He finished the season with 38 goals and averaged 21 disposals. From 2006 to 2009 he received 84 Brownlow votes which equated to 21 per season, easily a winning tally in years gone by considering he had drawn 22 votes during 2003's success. From 2007 to 2009 he played career best football in the eyes of some critics[who?] and perhaps better than 2003 or 2006 as evidenced by a career high eight goals against Fremantle in 2008 and more accurate goal kicking when in the forward 50. Goodes played some high standard football in 2009 in what was a relatively disappointing season in which the Swans finished 12th and failed to make the finals for the first time in six years. He also polled three Brownlow Medal votes in the Round 7 match against Geelong which Sydney lost by 51 points.
In 2010, Goodes averaged about 20 disposals and two goals a game, having been at the forefront of Sydney's revival. They finished the season in fifth position. Having started the season at centre half-forward and providing a target inside 50 for much of the year, Goodes was shifted into the midfield with success. He finished sixth in the Bob Skilton Medal and was named in the initial 40 player All-Australian squad but not in the final side. He was also named captain of the International Rules squad to play in Ireland in October.
After a strong 2009 season and an occasional move to half-forward, Goodes was selected last but managed to sneak into the 2009 All-Australian team on the interchange bench.
Goodes started 2011 playing mostly in the Swans' forward line. While his ball-winning was considered as good as ever,[according to whom?] his goal-kicking became somewhat inconsistent. In a match against Essendon that season, Goodes had a chance to win the game for Sydney with his team down by two points, but his shot at goal drifted to the left, losing the game for Sydney by a solitary point.
Goodes played his 300th AFL game when the Sydney Swans tackled Hawthorn in a second semi-final, losing by 36 points. He became the quickest player (though not the youngest) in AFL history to reach the milestone, breaking 2003 joint-Brownlow Medalist Mark Ricciuto's record by 274 days. His late-season surge in form saw him selected in the 2011 All-Australian team in the forward pocket. This was his fourth selection in the team.
In 2011, Goodes started second favourite for the Brownlow but finished eighth overall and won the 2011 Sydney Swans' Best and Fairest, beating Josh Kennedy and Rhyce Shaw who tied for second.
Goodes broke the Sydney games record when he played his 304th AFL game with a strong contribution in the Swans' Round 5, 2012, victory over Hawthorn at York Park in Launceston, Tasmania. He suffered a quad injury in Round 6 and was expected to miss up to six games.
Goodes has made several television advertisement appearances. In 2006, he appeared along with Shane Crawford in an advertisement for Campbell's Chunky soup. In 2007, he appeared, along with team-mates, in the Barry Hall series of commercials for the AFL in Sydney. In 2009, he featured in the official advertisement for the AFL, receiving the ball from Chris Judd while striding out in front of horses on a horse racing track, as well as in an advertisement for Powerade. In August 2014, his ancestry was researched on the ABC series Who Do You Think You Are?(Season 6, Epidode 6), and projected a gentle man who values his aboriginal connection.
Goodes is of Aboriginal descent and is active in the Sydney Indigenous community. He has spent time working with troubled Indigenous youth, including those in youth detention centres, along with his cousin and former teammate Michael O'Loughlin. His mother Lisa May is also involved in community work and works at a nursing home. Goodes and O'Loughlin have also helped to start an Indigenous football academy. In September 2009 they launched the Goodes O'Loughlin Foundation, a foundation aimed at empowering the next generation of Indigenous role models in all walks of life across Australia. Goodes and O'Loughlin co-chair the foundation, which focuses on education, employment and healthy lifestyles. Goodes took his mother to the Brownlow Medal ceremony in 2003.
In an essay titled "The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice", published in the 2008 AFL history book The Australian Game of Football Since 1858, Goodes writes of the ancient Aboriginal game, Marngrook, and its theorised link to the origins of Australian rules football: "I don't know the truth, but I believe in the connection. Because I know that when Aborigines play Australian Football with a clear mind and total focus, we are born to play it." Controversy erupted when, during an appearance on The Marngrook Footy Show, AFL historian Gillian Hibbins called Goodes a "racist", adding: "If you define racism as believing a race is superior in something, this is basically what he [Goodes] was doing."
On 24 May 2013, during the AFL's annual Indigenous Round, a 13-year-old Collingwood supporter called Goodes an "ape". Upon hearing the abuse, Goodes pointed the girl out to security who ejected her from the stadium. After the game, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire apologised to Goodes on behalf of the club. McGuire said that Collingwood had a zero tolerance policy towards racism, but also said that the girl, who later apologised to Goodes, did not know that what she had said was a racial slur. Goodes said that he was "gutted" and that he had "never been more hurt" but nevertheless called on the community to support the girl instead of blame her.
Over the following years, and particularly in 2015, Goodes was repeatedly and loudly booed by opposition fans at most matches. The motivation for and acceptability of the booing generated wide public debate, which dominated media coverage from both sports and political commentators for weeks at a time during the year, and even drew comment from then Prime MinisterTony Abbott. Many considered the booing to be unacceptable and motivated by racism—either because those booing felt affronted by his race or by the strong political positions Goodes had taken on racial issues—and called on the AFL to take direct action to stop it. Others defended the rights of fans to continue booing as a show of disapproval for Goodes' actions, including a perception that his approach in dealing with the Collingwood fan who called him an ape was heavy-handed, and for statements he had made during his time as Australian of the Year which had been seen to denigrate the history of European settlement of Australia. The booing of Goodes has also been described as a symptom of tall poppy syndrome.
During a match against Carlton in May 2015, again during the AFL's annual Indigenous Round, Goodes celebrated a goal by performing an indigenous war dance in which he mimed throwing a spear in the direction of the Carlton cheer squad. Goodes said after the incident that the dance was based on one he learned from under-16s indigenous team the Flying Boomerangs, and that it was intended as an expression of indigenous pride during Indigenous Round, not as a means of offending or intimidating the crowd. The "symbolic act" has been compared favourably to Nicky Winmarlifting his guernsey during the 1993 AFL season and Cathy Freeman running with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. However, some spectators were offended by the perceived aggressive nature of the spear-throwing gesture and many considered it retaliatory against the booing he had received in previous weeks. It divided opinion among News Corp commentators with many viewing it as inflammatory to the situation which had received particularly wide media coverage during the previous week. The booing of Goodes intensified in the months after the war dance.
Owing to the stress caused by the booing and attention, Goodes took indefinite leave from the game in August of the 2015 season. Many clubs and players in the AFL supported Goodes in the week of his leave by wearing indigenous-themed guernseys or armbands, and a video was prepared by the eighteen club captains to discourage the crowd from booing. He returned the following week and played for the remainder of the season after an outpouring of support on social media; and from fans, actors, politicians, celebrities and team mates, including two spontaneous standing ovations. Goodes retired from AFL in September 2015.