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Opinion

Do black lives really matter in the AFL?

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Roar Guru
18th June, 2020
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2015 Reads

It’s a provocative question and, for some, a ridiculous one. But it’s a question that has to be asked.

There are a few things the AFL and its clubs should be proud of regarding Indigenous welfare and growth of Indigenous participation in the game.

The AFL should rightly be proud that is in an industry – one of very few – that at the player level has an over-representation of First Nations players. About ten per cent of the code’s players identify as Indigenous, while about three per cent of the general population does.

There is no doubt that at the player level, the AFL and club efforts to stamp out racism have been proactive and beneficial.

Gone are the days of Ross Oakley needing to mediate an outcome between Michael Long and Damien Monkhurst. While there’s no reason for me to think Heritier Lumumba is making things up at Collingwood (that’s for him and the club to resolve) there is undoubtedly been a strong and concerted effort by all clubs to clean up their act, particularly since the shame of the Adam Goodes abuse.

Fans are now dobbed in, social media comes down like a fat kid on a cupcake, clubs show zero tolerance in ripping up memberships. The environment for the player is the best it’s been, but there – like with everything – is still more to be done.

What about away from the playing field and the locker room? Can the AFL really say that they’ve done their bit for Indigenous equality? I’d say no.

A resounding, hard, massive, emphatic no. Racism – whether explicit or implicit – exists in abound in nearly every other facet of the game.

Frankly, enough is enough. When compared to other codes in Australia, the AFL actually ranks very poorly in many measures.

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The media
There are about 80-85 TV commentators, radio commentators, pundits, presenters, panellists etc in AFL-related programming on commercial television and Fox Sports. All are white.

Sam Pang on the front bar is the only non-white on the books at Channel Seven involved in the footy. Of the 34 on Fox sports, I couldn’t see anyone on the list that identifies as Indigenous.

On Channel 9, the 15 or so regulars are white. The Sunday Footy Show has six white men as the hosts.

This is racism. To say otherwise would be denial. Unconscious bias is just as nasty. The excluding of people because of skin colour – not talent – is disgraceful.

There is no excuse at all that an Indigenous player (past or present) cannot be a regularly scheduled pundit talking about the same stuff the white boys do. Nothing against Jack Riewoldt, but why does he need to be on AFL 360 every week?

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Why not instead, four-time premiership-winner, 375-gamer and All Australian Shaun Burgoyne? You’d reckon as being one of only two players left playing since 2004 (Gary Ablett the other) he might be able to shed some light on the game and its evolution.

Shaun Burgoyne

Shaun Burgoyne. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Why not Eddie Betts? Shane Edwards?

My suspicions that Burgoyne has been overlooked come from the fact that there are three fellow four-time premiership-winning players with TV contracts, and the fourth is a coach (which we’ll get onto later). Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis and Roughead are all on the tube – Hodge and Lewis were there before they retired as well.

Buddy Franklin has a ten-week stint on the sidelines. Why not see whether he’d want to be a boundary rider during that time?

Hodge and Nick Riewoldt were while they were playing. When he hangs up the boots, move Matthew Richardson or Nick Riewoldt along.

They are nice, upstanding men, but if you had the choice between a two-time premiership, multi-Coleman medal-winning, eigh-time time all Australian, likely 1000-goal kicker and those two… it would be a no brainer.

Except, of course, that pesky skin colour.

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Think about if Adam Goodes was white. Firstly, he wouldn’t have been booed and secondly, a man with his resume would have had TV networks begging for his time. They’ve certainly shelled out more for less.

No, instead he was driven from the game. The AFL was silent, the media not much better. They could have gone on the front foot and employed him, as they certainly would have for his white equivalent. Nope. Silence.

The entrenched racism runs deep in the media. Black players just need to concentrate on playing footy. The white people will talk about the game for you. Guest appearances only, please.

But sure, the AFL media pats themselves on the back once a year during the Indigenous Round, wheels out a few black players about “what this round means to them”, gets some B-roll footage of Michael Long walking into the MCG for the end of year video, and churns out a few dozen articles to meet the annual quota of black stuff. Job done.

Dyson Heppell of the Bombers (left) walks to the war cry with Zach Merrett of the Bombers during the 2018 AFL round 11 Dreamtime at the G match between the Essendon Bombers and the Richmond Tigers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on June 02, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

Dreamtime at the G is a great occasion, but more needs to be done. (Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The print media does escape criticism. Dreadfully white – except that one week of the year during Indigenous Round. Otherwise, they may as well be black ghosts. Bob Murphy wrote wonderful stuff as a current player for The Age – can a black player not do the same? Can a black player for once be a guest on the Real Footy Podcast?

The AFL is being left behind here. While one could never say the UK have achieved any sense of racial parity on their panels, they are still doing better. America has many, many black people employed as pundits. Even the NRL has a few. It’s not many, and the NRL also need to be scrutinised for their efforts, but it’s at least a start. It’s not zero.

Johnathan Thurston, Ian Wright, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley are providing their own punditry as equals. Why can’t an Indigenous ex-player do the same in the AFL?

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I’m not squaring the blame at the AFL pundits or presenters. They may not even know they are complicit in the entrenched system of racism. TV and radio executives in charge need to ask the questions of themselves.

But the Indigenous players have a voice and it deserves to be heard as much as anyone else. It’s not black footy players talking about being black. It’s black footy players or black presenters talking about footy like the white players and presenters do.

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Coaching ranks

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In 2018 (the last year I could get accurate info), there were just three coaches in the system who identified as Indigenous. Three. Out of what was then about 180 coaches. That’s pathetic.

There are excuses that can be made until the cows come home, but the bare fact is that there has been zero meaningful action on it! The excuse that they don’t want to be coaches is rubbish. The system is set up for them to not want to become one.

Why? It’s the same as above. Entrenched systematic racism. The black player is a player only. He’s not a coach, he’s not an author, he’s not a TV presenter, he’s not a leader of men, right? Play football, kick goals, help win flags, take your money and disappear.

It’s been over three decades since Barry Cable was a head coach. It’s an outrage that since the game “went national”, this has regressed badly.

Again, looking overseas, the AFL are getting left behind, although not as rapidly as the media positions. There are minority head coaches in the NFL, NBA and the MLB. Sure, it’s still an under-representation compared to the player pool, but it’s vastly better than the AFL.

The NRL certainly doesn’t cover itself in glory, but at least has the distinction of having more non-white coaches in their history than the AFL. They have much to do as well though. This is not an NRL versus AFL article. Basically, the AFL sits on the same tier as the European Football Leagues in this regard – not a distinction you’d want to put on a trophy.

Club management

Yet another disgrace. I was stunned to learn that Gavin Wanganeen – in 2019 – became the first Indigenous player ever elected to a club board. There are between 144-180 board positions across all the clubs. How many thousands of opportunities would have arisen over the years for just one Indigenous person!?

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I’m thinking the Sydney Swans – Mick O’Loughlin bled 300 games for them. No board appointment.

Andrew McLeod – what more did he need to win to get on the board? Are back-to-back Norm Smiths, 300-plus games just not good enough anymore? Michael Long at Essendon? Peter Matera at West Coast?

None of these people were not only not elected, but not even put on any ballot for elected position, nor in any appointed position. That’s the true outrage. Sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green at the ballot, but to not even be on the list is just a manifest disgrace.

Black players just need to play footy, and let the white people sit in the boards and watch from the boxes, right?

No Indigenous player comes within cooee of a management role in the club either. No such thing as a black C suite officer, or AFL commissioner. No, white people get those roles, and black players get the “Indigenous liaison” role instead – an outpost of a club or HQ that invites no career growth opportunity within the club.

Pigeonholed in the “black guy” role the moment they join. It’s an important role to be sure, but it’s not going to lead to becoming an executive director either.

It’s unacceptable. There needs to be a pathway for black players to have a future in the game beyond merely playing the game. There needs to be the same level of access for these players to have a future in the game, should they choose to do so.

Statistically, it would be almost impossible to think that practically every Indigenous player to play the game (with the exception of about five people) didn’t want to stay in the game in a bigger capacity.

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Playing the game is fine, but there needs to be the opportunity for Indigenous players to own the game too. They own nothing about it. It’s modern-day sharecropping. Playing a game for the enjoyment of white masters here – so white pundits can write and talk about it, white board members can grow the business of it, white coaches can get flags and bonuses.

Yes, there are obviously white players doing the same, but those white players have a vastly better chance of teeing up the coveted TV, coaching slots or board/management gigs.

Taking a knee looks good on Instagram and there’s no doubt the players are sincere. The pristine white AFL media had a grand time talking about it. Wouldn’t it have been better though if a full-time Indigenous footy reporter got to talk about it instead?

Collingwood and Richmond players take a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement

Collingwood and Richmond players take a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

So what to do? For a start – get some Indigenous people in the media in full-time roles. Not just players, but Indigenous presenters. They exist. Marngrook footy show was amazing. They know what they are doing. It doesn’t have to be many. Employing just three would be proportional to the population after all.

Clubs need to start taking a more proactive role in promoting coaching as a viable post-player career for Indigenous people. Start small. Get them involved as technical/speciality coaches in the VFL, WAFL or TAC Cup.

No one is suggesting parachuting anyone into assistant coaching roles at AFL level. Clubs with a history of parachuting greats into those roles have ended up needing to clean up the mess later anyway.

On the management side, this is where I would be heavy-handed in the reforms. The AFL should mandate that one board appointee per club must be Indigenous (player or non-player). Clubs that don’t comply get taxed in the form of salary cap reductions.

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Ditto at the commissioner level – the time has come to have an Indigenous voice on the commission. It’s been long overdue.

So, back to the original question, do black lives matter in the AFL? They can matter a heck of a lot more.