Trying to see the AFL indigenous issue clearly

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    “In my experience, when there are rising tensions between different groups, whether they be racial or religious, there is really only one remedy. Engagement”.

    “The alternative to engagement is a cycle of rumour and speculation that eventually finds expression through media types who mistake valuable opinion for saying the first thing that comes into their head, as opposed to arriving at a final judgement based on the best information available.” – Martin Flanagan, The Age

    There is no better journalist to read than Martin Flanagan if you want to get an insight into the Liam Jurrah story and the broader one of indigenous affairs in sport.

    The AFL should not be expected to help indigenous players “assimilate” or “adapt” to life in the big city. To “assimilate” means to rid one of all previous cultural and social factors. Things like language, custom and ritual are gone, replaced by that of the dominant culture they find themselves in.

    This definition should shadow all discussion about indigenous footballers coming to the AFL. The hysteria from the public and sections of the media that has ensued Liam Jurrah’s alleged involvement in a domestic dispute whilst on leave from Melbourne has been grossly misguided.

    Paul Roos has said indigenous players will suffer in a two and two interchange system. Adelaide’s recruiting manager Matt Rendell was sacked for claiming he would be apprehensive to recruit an indigenous player unless they had one white parent. James Hird also made similar comments to Roos.

    Listening to Melbourne sports radio station SEN1116 this morning callers said they could understand Rendell’s comments. Others called for the AFL to help players “assimilate better” whilst journalist Patrick Smith denied there was even a problem with indigenous footballers at all.

    I respect all of these opinions, yet one crucial factor was not touched in any of the rhetoric I heard in thirty minutes of radio.

    It is what Indigenous author Tony Birch calls “structural amnesia or the social organization of forgetting”.

    In summary this is the way white Australia has always been in the majority and continues to turn away from the mistakes and misdoings of the past.

    Australian Rules Football is described as an “indigenous” game, in the sense that it was created here. I have always felt that this statement is an example of how a mainstream body of people – football lovers – can appreciate the beginnings of one thing but not another.

    We love the way indigenous stars have contributed to our league over the years. We have been stunned by those players, yet once the debate moves outside of the realm of football society forgets.

    Structure is lost, the blinkers are taken off and we only choose to see what is comfortable.

    This is grossly hypocritical and damaging. Think of the story of Nicky Winmar, who pointed to his skin in response to racial taunts at Victoria Park in 1993.

    It is sickening that this used to occur. It still does but on a much more infrequent level.

    That Winmar, through an act of protest to racial vilification, has had the greatest impact on positive engagement with and acceptance of indigenous players in our game is disappointing.

    It may be so that acts of defiance have caused much indigenous progress in wider society, but surely, in one of the few realms in our community where indigenous people are admired and followed for the right reasons all stakeholders can be pro active.

    That is why now is an important time for some sort of discussion, or “summit” as Flanagan calls it. It is a dramatic word with connotation of a crisis.

    The isolated case of Jurrah, along with the likes of Austin Wonaeamirri and Relton Roberts falling out of the AFL system, doesn’t justify a crisis.

    Rather Flangan’s suggestion is one aimed at ensuring the future indigenous players are handled better and taken into a structure that is more accommodating, appreciative and understanding.

    If the AFL takes a lead in major reforms like this – which are overall positive – the potential for greater change in society’s attitude is immense. Though it is not the AFL’s responsibility to achieve this there is a great opportunity to do so.

    The AFL as an organization does already play a large role in empowering indigenous athletes by providing a competition that they have been successful in.

    However, those that love the game, and more broadly the general public, should choose to notice and be equally concerned about the brilliance of indigenous footballers and the degradation of their society.

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    The Crowd Says (5)

    • March 20th 2012 @ 8:27am
      brendan said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      Focusing on the negative only creates problems.I may be wrong but i think there are more indigineous players than ever.Geelong who i support has four aboriginal players on there list which is the most i can remember.So Rendell said something racist ( how he cannot see that saying you might need one white parent to get drafted is racist is astonishing) he obviously isnt real smart so bye bye to him end of story.Perhaps we should focus on the positive indigneous players from remote communities who have succeeded in the game.How many white players come that far to play the game? I think Dean Cox comes from Esperance and i must admit when Geelong drafted Joel Hamling from Broome i thought hope he doesnt get homesick.All i know is Afl is the most multi-cultural it has ever been so lets continue to support this great game and all the different races and faiths that merge into our heroes and villians when they cross that white line.

    • Roar Guru

      March 20th 2012 @ 8:28am
      The_Wookie said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      Except it isnt just Jurrah, Wonaeamirri, Roberts. Its Andrew Krakeur, its Rex Liddy, it was close with Bennell. This has been a problem for years, and is the downside of the draft system that wrenches kids out of home at 17 and tries to make them into men before they are ready.

    • March 20th 2012 @ 4:59pm
      Norm said | March 20th 2012 @ 4:59pm | ! Report

      Excellent article! Martin Flanagan is a superb reporter/writer who takes sports journalism to a higher plane. His non-footy articles are fascinating.

    • March 21st 2012 @ 5:42pm
      stabpass said | March 21st 2012 @ 5:42pm | ! Report

      Rendell was shafted, people must feel free to vent these issues for them to be solved.

    • March 24th 2012 @ 11:21pm
      Jimi said | March 24th 2012 @ 11:21pm | ! Report

      The whole Rendell issue sounded to me like the indigenous AFL welfare set closed ranks and offered up Rendell as a sacrificial lamb to satisfy Demetriou. Whereas trying out for the AFL is something a lot of urban whites can do, and become successful, albeit not champions at – when is the last time we saw a so-so plodding indigenous player eke out 120 games? Indigenous player are nearly always elite. I would imagine, unlike the multitudes of big city young hopefuls, there is only so many places for indigenous hopefuls from remote areas. And thats why when a Wonaeamirri, or a Rex Liddy don’t make it, its a much bigger deal. I believe journalists who don’t take this into account are being dishonest and trying to paper over the cracks.

      BTW, Rendell got plenty of high profile ex indigenous players openly supporting him because he had helped and tutored them alonfg the way and they weren’t too proud to say they were grateful for that. How many indigenous players supported Mifsud the same way? I don’t think I heard one.

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