Australian rules football and improving Indigenous relations

Jackson Clark Roar Guru

By Jackson Clark, Jackson Clark is a Roar Guru

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    With Indigenous Round approaching, I thought it would be good to take a look at the Indigenous contribution to our game.

    But not only that, I will delve into the role that Australian football as a sport has had in improving relationships between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.

    Racism is arguably one of the most basic and common issues in Australian society. It has been a problem since the first fleet of British settlers arrived in Botany Bay on January 26, 1788.

    The approximately 800 settlers were largely made up of British convicts and also marines and officers.

    The arrival of the British settlers sparked racial tension between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.

    While the day of the arrival is revered and celebrated by the majority of Australians as “Australia Day” there is an alternative Indigenous observance that is not as welcoming of the celebration.

    For these people, the day is often referred to as “Invasion Day”, as it was the day that they had their land stolen from them.

    Peter Gebhardt of the Sydney Morning Herald goes one step further describing the day as “the theft of a land … the abduction of people, of a culture … and a day that stands as a reminder of massacres”.

    My belief is Australian football plays a large role in bringing the community together and helps break down racial and other prejudices.

    This is due to the fact that several races work in a team environment to achieve a common goal, such as winning a football match. It causes people to put any racial prejudices aside for the betterment of the team.

    Many Indigenous Australians have played in instrumental role in the development of the game.

    The basic fundamentals of the modern game can be traced back to the early 1840s in a traditional game that was played by Indigenous people called marngrook.

    From the simple game played with a possum skin ball to the billion-dollar industry that the Australian Football League currently is, Indigenous footballers have made, and continue to make a massive impact on the game.

    Despite this, Indigenous footballers were not always made to feel welcome in the majority of football clubs, both around Australia, and locally in the Northern Territory.

    They were subjected to racial prejudice and discrimination from not only fellow players of the sport, but also from the governing bodies and administration at the top level.

    Perhaps one of the most poignant and symbolic images in Australian sporting history was from on April 17 1993, when Indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar took a strong stance against racism.

    Winmar was on the receiving end of a barrage of racial abuse during a football match at Victoria Park against Collingwood.

    The notoriously parochial Collingwood supporter base overstepped the line on this occasion and Winmar responded by lifting his jumper, pointing to his skin and declaring “I am black and I am proud to be black”.

    This image was captured by a photographer at the game and has been seen by millions of people over the past two decades.

    It has also been the inspiration for paintings, cartoons and street art around Melbourne.

    Melbourne exhibition curator Matthew Klugman stated that “it’s hard to think of a more important popular Australian image over the past two decades”.

    Historian Joy Damousi goes so far as to describe the act as “really one of the most significant events in Australian cultural history”.

    Although some people label Australian football as “just a game”, it is moments like these that make people aware that it is much more than that.

    Winmar’s stance against racism has paved the way for many other Indigenous footballers to speak up about racial abuse copped on the field and by supporters. He made the conscious decision to stand up for himself and his people.

    Winmar’s response to racial abuse may have helped many young Indigenous footballers to feel more comfortable in their surroundings and Winmar may be looked upon as role model.

    After the infamous Winmar incident at Victoria Park, the then Collingwood president Allan McAlister was quoted as saying “Aboriginal people were welcome at the club provided that they behave like white people”.

    This obtuse comment obviously outraged many of the Indigenous population and demonstrated just how wrong some of the views of people in highly-respected positions were.

    When McAlister made these comments, it was not to offend or humiliate the Indigenous football population. However his inadvertently racist comment was more an indication of the times.

    Since this debacle in the early 1990s, Collingwood have gone a long way in repairing relations with Indigenous Australians and a restoring the respect of the community.

    In 1994 the football club pioneered a match against a representative team of Indigenous footballers called the Aboriginal All-Stars.

    The match was played in front of a large crowd at TIO Stadium in Darwin and the Indigenous All-Stars continue to play matches to this day.

    Furthermore, in 2003 Collingwood travelled to Darwin for a training camp and visited numerous Aboriginal communities during this time.

    This practice has continued with many other AFL clubs deciding to do the same thing. The current Collingwood playing list boasts several Indigenous stars and this further exemplifies the impact that Australian Football has had on improving Indigenous relations.

    The governing bodies of the league and also these individual football clubs have made a pact to stamp out racism at football games.

    The AFL is a multicultural game, both at the elite level and locally, and their anti-racism stance applies to all races.

    Infringing players and supporter groups often receive lengthy punishments as a deterrent and message to the rest of Australia that racism will not be tolerated in this sport.

    Is the sport’s anti-racism policy a success?

    In order to answer that question we need to look no further than participation rates of Indigenous Australians at AFL level.

    Despite the fact that only approximately 2.5 percent of Australians are classified as Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprise of 12 percent of the total AFL player population.

    The AFL also devotes one round a season on celebrating the Indigenous contribution by calling it Indigenous Round.

    Headlining the round is the annual Dreamtime at the ‘G clash between Richmond and Essendon – two of the country’s biggest drawing clubs.

    The match regularly draws over 70,000 people and hosts many pre-match Indigenous performances.

    One of the main pre-match rituals involves The Long Walk, a reconciliation program created by Michael Long, a champion of the Essendon Football Club and former victim of on-field racial abuse.

    Long and other participants walk from Federation Square to the MCG to promote reconciliation.

    While Winmar’s courageous actions highlighted the issue at a national level, Indigenous Australians faced an uphill battle to even be able to play the sport at a local level in Darwin before the 1950s.

    Before 1952 in the local Northern Territory Football League competition played in Darwin, the Wanderers Football Club were the only club in the league to allow full-blood Aboriginals to join their side.

    This was before the inception of the St Marys Football Club in 1952. During this time, Tiwi Islanders were employed by both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Army and worked in groups of around 40 men.

    St Marys Football Club was formed originally to provide an opportunity for Tiwi Islanders employed by the armed services to play football in Darwin.

    Ted Egan AO in cooperation with Father Aubrey Collins was the influential man that formed what would later become one of the most successful football clubs in Australia.

    The inclusion of the Tiwi Islanders in the side was an obvious recipe for on and off-field success.

    Nowadays, every football club in Australia is welcoming to all multicultural backgrounds and this is further proof of the positive impact football can have on communities.

    Australian Football provides a pathway for people of all different backgrounds and cultures to integrate with each other. This great sport attracts people from all walks of life.

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 8:16am
      Australian Rules said | May 22nd 2013 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      Jackson, just a few things:

      First, any article acknowledging the enormous contribution that Indigenous Aussies have made to the game is worthwhile. Would have been good to see Joe Johnson, Polly Farmer, Glen James and others mentioned. They were pioneers long before Winwar and Long.

      Second, be careful with the Marngrook reference. Whilst its been postulated that Tom Wills observed this Aboriginal pasttime as a kid (and so created Aussie Rules), Wills was a NSWelshman and its doubted that Marngrook existed north of the Murray…but who really knows. In any event, opinion remains split on that one.

      Third, I take it you’re a Collingwood supporter. You’ve extolled the efforts of that club in Indigenous areas and almost painted it a leader on this front – Essendon and others would have a greater claim to that.
      Moreover, you excused the comments of 1993 President, Allan McAlister by saying: “When McAlister made these comments, it was not to offend or humiliate the Indigenous football population. However his inadvertently racist comment was more an indication of the times.” THAT, is rubbish.

      Otherwise well done.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 8:37am
        Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        On your third point there AR, I tend to agree. Mcalister was a disgrace, hopefully those of his ilk have been left behind. As for Essendon leading the way, I rekon Port could challenge them. After all, where did Wanganeen and Che CC come from?

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 9:13am
          Australian Rules said | May 22nd 2013 @ 9:13am | ! Report

          Well, Che was Qld-born and began his AFL career with Essendon.
          Wanganeen was born in SA and began his AFL career with Essendon.

          What’s your point?

          • May 22nd 2013 @ 9:44am
            Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 9:44am | ! Report

            Errr that they both played their junior footy at Port, where they were developed in to top class players. Had Port in the AFL from 1990 (as they should have been) these players would have never made it to Essendon. Same goes for Andrew McLeod, Fabian Francis, 2 other Cockatoo-Collins’ etc etc.

            • May 22nd 2013 @ 10:10am
              Australian Rules said | May 22nd 2013 @ 10:10am | ! Report

              It’s fair point about Port being in the AFL earlier – they did have many Indigenous players. But in terms of clubs who were recognised (at least by the media) as connecting with remote bush communities, I think Essendon have a reasonable claim to that…and Sheedy played no small part.

              • May 22nd 2013 @ 10:50am
                Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 10:50am | ! Report

                Maybe the Vic media but if you take a look at the SANFL Aboriginal team of all time you’ll see that 9 of the 22 come from one club, Port.
                Richie Bray, Andrew McLeod, Gavin Wanganeen, Byron Pickett, Corey AhChee, Graham Johncock, Shaun Burgoyne, Peter Burgoyne, Aaron Davey.
                Taking into account that Essendon recruited Michael Long from West Torrens and Derek Kicket from Central Districts and you could say that Essendon has largely cherry-picked indigenous talent from the SANFL.
                Sheedy may have played a part, but didn’t he get help from the department of indigenous affairs???

              • May 22nd 2013 @ 10:56am
                Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 10:56am | ! Report

                I forgot about Shane and Troy Bond 😉

              • May 22nd 2013 @ 3:13pm
                johno said | May 22nd 2013 @ 3:13pm | ! Report

                I’ll see you’re SANFL indigenous team of all time and play my WA one.

                Polly Farmer, Barry Cable, Syd Jackson, Stephen Michael (IMHO the best indig player ever, sorry Polly), Peter Matera, Phil Matera, Chris Lewis, Nicky Winmar, Jim Krakouer, Phil Krakouer, Derek Kickett, Ted Kilmurray, Bill Dempsey, Jeff Farmer, Antoni Grover, Dale Kickett, Troy Cook, Des Headland, Benny Vigona, Phil Narkle, Roger Hayden ….. that’s a team that would clean up in the current AFL!

                … and then there’s the blokes currently playing I have omitted – Buddy Franklin, Daniel Wells, Lewis Jetta, Harley Bennell, Ashley McGrath, Stephen Hill, Michael Walters, Andrew Krakouer, Leroy Jetta, Jack Martin (the 17 yr old that Gold Coast picked up will be a gun!) … the list goes on – because about 1/3 of all current indig players are from the Nyongar tribe in WA. And the AFL pays no respect to them. Instead they focus on Essendon and Richmond …… what the?

                Freo has listed and played the most indigenous players in the AFL and South Freo named its own indig team of the century (with many from the list above).

              • May 22nd 2013 @ 6:01pm
                Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

                johno, you’re not comparing apples mate.
                I am talking about 1 club. You are talking about 1 state. Almost half of the best indigenous talent in SA (and many in oz) came from one club – Port Adelaide.
                Now if Freo, or South Freo for that matter can boast the same record as Port, fair play to them but I seriously doubt that is the case.

                The fact that Freo have played the most Aboriginal players in the AFL despite coming in in 96 (97?) is a credit to them, however.

                And I have to agree, Richmond and Essendon clearly use the occasion as a marketing exercise. If they were fair dinkum, there would probably be a game between Port and Freo in Alice or something.

              • May 23rd 2013 @ 10:58am
                johno said | May 23rd 2013 @ 10:58am | ! Report

                Agree Franko – Port v Freo should be an annual Indig round game, but shared between the two clubs each other year. That would definitely increase the rivalry between the two port clubs.

                Buuuut then Essendon and Richmond would get the sads about that, and the AFL don’t want that to happen.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 9:20am
        Jimbo said | May 22nd 2013 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        Wills grew up in the Western District of Victoria, as the only white child in the district and played with and spoke the local language.

        Interesting story today in the age regarding AFL hopeful Nathan Drummond.

        On one side his great grandfather captained Collingwood in the 1920’s and on the other Drummond is the great, great grandson of William Cooper, who was one of the country’s earliest activists for Aboriginal rights. The son of a white labourer and Yorta Yorta woman, Cooper grew up at Cummeragunga,

        Read more:

        And as an aside perhaps ‘Pompey’ Austin an aboriginal footballer who played with Geelong in 1872 could have been mentioned, perhaps he was the first Aboriginal footballer to be recognised.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 11:17am
        greginbrissy said | May 22nd 2013 @ 11:17am | ! Report

        Obviously, you are a Essendon supporter – it’s ok, I know many of you, there’s no greater club in your eye’s *blinkers*.

        I agree, McAlister was racist, whether he thought he was or not – in fact, most people are racist in one way or another, regardless of background. I’m very white, and growing up had many comments thrown my way due to my skin colour, from all communities including indigenous and anglo-saxan. I used to try and get ‘tans’ to get colour, and instead went red, blistered, then white again lol. Fun time!

        Anyways, the first recognised indigenous player in VFL/AFL was a chap named Joe Johnson, who played for old Fitzroy, way back from 1904 to 1906, a team which won back to back premierships. The second was also Fitzroy, in 1918 called Norm Byron. In fact, 4 of the first 6 indigenous players to ever play VFL/AFL football played for Fitzroy, one for Melbourne, and one for Carlton/North Melbourne.

        Of all time, the team that has had more indigenous players than any other, is Fremantle, with a total of 18 over their short history. Essendon, Melbourne and North Melbourne have had totals of 17 each, but have a far longer history in the game. As such, i’d have to say on VFL level, Fitzroy were the ground breakers for equality on the VFL field, and Fremantle of modern times definately in my opinion have the closest ties to the indigenous communities, doing fantastic work out west.

        Essendon, Melbourne and North Melbourne obviously deserve credit too for the great work they do in the communities

        That’s just my opinion. BTW, here’s were I got my information from:

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 1:57pm
          Australian Rules said | May 22nd 2013 @ 1:57pm | ! Report

          I’m not an Essendon supporter Greg. And I mentioned that Joe Johnson would have been a good place to start.

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 3:17pm
          johno said | May 22nd 2013 @ 3:17pm | ! Report

          Actually Freo has had 23 (Essendon 22), although hopefully that will go to 24 this weekend when Freo debut Josh Simpso

      • Roar Guru

        May 22nd 2013 @ 2:19pm
        Jackson Clark said | May 22nd 2013 @ 2:19pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the feedback mate. I mentioned the Winmar incident because I wanted to point out a specific racist moment in the game. Obviously Johnson, Farmer, James and co. have done plenty for Indigenous football. I believe Winmar and Long’s actions sparked a damatic change though and this is why they are highlighted.

        For the record, I am a passionate Richmond supporter and I don’t believe I painted Collingwood as a leader in improving Indigenous relations. I pointed out a couple of racist incidents that the club/supporters/president are guilty of and rather focus on all the negatives, I thought I’d acknowledge that the club has turned the corner and is now doing its bit for Indigenous footy.

        Thanks for reading.

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 2:53pm
          Australian Rules said | May 22nd 2013 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

          Good one…apologies for the Collingwood slur!

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 9:40am
      Brendan said | May 22nd 2013 @ 9:40am | ! Report

      Amazing to think that so many Afl footballers are indigenous when they only represent such a small percentage of the population. Glad the NT Footy league allowed aboriginal players to participate as many great players have come from that region.Enjoyed reading this article .

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 12:21pm
      Allan said | May 22nd 2013 @ 12:21pm | ! Report

      Sad that after 20 years the best it can be described as is ‘improving’. I can see how Kevin Sheedy thought it was normal to make the comments he did last week.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 1:32pm
        The Curious Case of Benjamin Stratton said | May 22nd 2013 @ 1:32pm | ! Report

        The only thing worse than an Aussie Rules supporter indulging a soccer troll is an Aussie Rules supporter trying to stir the soccer troll pot.

        I know its a free country but if AFL supporters on this website stopped replying to the soccer trolls (or trying to stir them up) I am sure they’d disappear into the night.

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 4:41pm
          me, I like football said | May 22nd 2013 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

          I think you’re lost

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 4:43pm
          me, I like football said | May 22nd 2013 @ 4:43pm | ! Report

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 4:42pm
        fishes said | May 22nd 2013 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

        I agree re the Sheedy comments, I thought they were shocking. There’s something wrong with the AFL and the media down in Melbourne to let him so easily get away with it, too.

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 5:47pm
          Stavros said | May 22nd 2013 @ 5:47pm | ! Report

          What has the media down in Melbourne got to do with Sheedy’s comments? What about the Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide media. Were they outraged by Sheedy’s comments?

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 1:28pm
      Strummer Jones said | May 22nd 2013 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

      Check out this bloke. Surely must be one of the first indigenous to break through to the top.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 3:21pm
        johno said | May 22nd 2013 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

        Not quite – that honour is I believe due to Polly Farmer, who started with East Perth in 1953. He was a true ground breaker (no offence to Joe Johnson). Captaining and coaching teams in the WAFL and VFL.

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 1:29pm
      Pope Paul VII said | May 22nd 2013 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

      I loved the Marngrook footy show, disappointed it’s disappeared.

      Syd Jackson was another who prospered in the late 60s early 70s. Interestingly he got off a striking charge, as racial provoaction was alleged. Turned out years later the Carlton pres thought it was a good defence so they went with it!
      This is from Wikipedia so you know some truth in there I guess.

      Not footy but Eddie Gilbert should not be forgotten. Fast and not necessarily furious, he was good enough to get Bradman for a duck. Alas he suffered badly from his own captain and cricket officials, let alone the crowd. Lot’s of innuendo about being a chucker but it’s difficult to believe given the hostility towards the indigenous at the time.

      • May 22nd 2013 @ 1:37pm
        Strummer Jones said | May 22nd 2013 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

        Marngrrok is on Channel 34 Thurs 7.30pm

        Bit of trivia: Syd Jackson and Nicholls apparently stole a car in the 70s to drive to Glenelg to play/coach in 1977 if my memory serves me correct.

        • May 22nd 2013 @ 2:16pm
          Pope Paul VII said | May 22nd 2013 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

          Thanks SJ, for some reason SBS reception vanished late last year.

          No doubt Syd and Big Nich were singing “White Riot” all the way there.

          • May 22nd 2013 @ 2:39pm
            Strummer Jones said | May 22nd 2013 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

            or White Man In Hammersmith Palais?

            • May 22nd 2013 @ 3:06pm
              Pope Paul VII said | May 22nd 2013 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

              for sure

              and “Daddy was,
              a bank robber”

    • May 22nd 2013 @ 2:10pm
      Franko said | May 22nd 2013 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

      Is it time for a team in the territory?
      Considering the players they have contributed over the years, indigenous and non.
      Sponsorship could come from all the betting agencies HQ’d there, or the armed forces?
      Coached by a former territorian (Buckley, McLeod) Cyril Rioli to be star recruit.

      Would their crowds be any less than GWS? Think of the good it would do for the community, not the corporate $ that you would miss out on.

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