The 2020 AFL carnival of AFL was benighted by the lockdown and cancellation of junior and second-tier footy in the eastern states, robbing the footy-loving public of a large proportion of the ever-increasingly popular pre-draft speculation and analysis of potential AFL talent.
In particular, the eventual number one draft pick, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, was denied the opportunity to showcase his immense talent against his peers as over a thousand prospects around the country endeavoured to put their names forward to be drafted.
What happened instead was that the media and AFL fandom focused on the unfairness of the close to consensus number one prospect being tied to a club on the basis of his ethnicity.
Not that anybody really framed it in those terms, yet that is what the decision to unhitch the Next Generation Academy (NGA) from the first round of the 2021 draft and also the second round from the 2022 draft onward comes down to – the next Buddy Franklin, Adam Goodes or Paddy Ryder will be on the block for any club to claim without their NGA club being able to match the bid because clubs didn’t want elite indigenous talent to be tied to one club.
By the same token, the Buddy comparisons might be perceived as a little lazy and somewhat casually racist. It is stating the obvious that Buddy is indigenous and full-forward has always been a very white position, so when another indigenous full-forward prospect came along, people were saying “is this kid as good as Buddy or is it all hype” before he’s even played a game. Would he have been compared to Lance Franklin if he hadn’t been indigenous? Probably not.
Footy gossip can be an echo chamber, so the innocence of comparing Buddy and Jamarra is just another product of the AFL industry manufacturing hype about a kid very few people have seen play live in person, therefore, the narrative has built around him that he’s the second coming of the great one without examining the othering inherent in the subtext.
Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is going to be a generational talent, but rather than being a Sam Walsh-style instantly elite performer, he will take a few years to really get going even though he’s probably going to get a prolonged shot at senior footy in order to allow him to develop at the top level.
It should also be noted that JUH’s potential has been judged on the evidence of nine NAB League U18 games when he was a bottom-aged 17-year-old. He was not chosen to represent Vic Country, having underwhelmed as a 16-year-old for the Greater Western Victoria Rebels in 2018.
His body of work came late in the 2019 Oakleigh Chargers premiership run, scoring 24 goals in nine games, and he tellingly went from goalkicking forward to tall target outside 50 in the grand final that became the Matt Rowell Highlights Show.
As far as Buddy goes, he came along at the very end of the era of big goal-kicking full-forwards and a game style that suited him, but if he were to be debuting this season he’d never kick a tonne in a season or necessarily become a tall forward at all.
This is where the comparison to JUH becomes relevant because the Dogs are stacked for tall forwards and could play him up a wing or as a third tall with roaming licence, which is where Buddy would have still flourished and Ugle-Hagan has the most scope for immediate impact.
The fact that Ugle-Hagan was NGA tied has yet again demonstrated that the AFL industry, including fans, has a problem with indigenous people getting special treatment. It surfaced during the Adam Goodes saga and now that this “boy” has had the temerity to get himself chosen as the number one draft pick and the AFL clubs rose up to ensure that no indigenous kid can ever do it again through the NGA program. Or migrant kid or child of migrant parents. Or kid who got lucky by accident of being born overseas to white Aussie parents. But those are just collateral damage.
Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! The NGA program is meant to foster kids who are for the most part in disadvantaged situations, but by making the eligibility criteria so broad there are loopholes through which players can access assistance and direct intervention from clubs who do not come from either under-represented communities or disadvantaged backgrounds.
James Borlase found his way into the Adelaide Crows NGA program without being indigenous or the son of a migrant. He was just born overseas while his father worked for the Australian Wheat Board in Egypt, which makes a mockery of the system but means the kid doesn’t have to leave South Australia, even if he was drafted by the wrong club given his father was a Port SANFL premiership player that didn’t quite satisfy the father-son criteria (which is also flawed).
What clubs have done by making their representations of protest to the AFL Commission has significantly damaged the pathway programs for kids from multicultural and indigenous backgrounds, which clubs will now spend less money on due to the diminishing rewards. They may not have been racially motivated, at least there isn’t substantiated evidence of such a fraught charge, yet the consequences of the actions of these clubs in demanding changes are going to affect indigenous and migrant families the most.
Removing top NGA talent from the bidding system won’t solve the compromised nature of future drafts because Northern Academies and father-sons will still attract bids in the first and second rounds, NGA bids will still come in later rounds and free agency compensation will still blow the first round out into the mid-20s.
The next Jamarra Ugle-Hagan could be intentionally hidden in the colts division of the minor leagues in rural Victoria, SA or Western Australia and pass out of the opening rounds of the draft because they’ve been concealed from talent pathways as clubs seek to find competitive advantage by cheating the rules. It has likely happened before NGA came along.
Alex Davies would have been NGA eligible if he hadn’t been a Suns far North Queensland Academy player because his Mum is Japanese. Likewise, Joel Jeffrey was actually in the NT Thunder Academy until he was diverted through the Darwin Suns Academy program.
Blake Coleman was another indigenous kid who would have been in the NGA had he remained in his home area in the Kimberley instead of following his brother, Keidean, to Brisbane to do high school and join the Lions Academy.
Six players in the first round of the 2020 draft – including the two Suns preselected draftees who were rated first-rounders – were NGA or would have qualified for NGA if they weren’t already in the Northern Academies, with Sydney’s Braeden Campbell the seventh academy-tied player in the group of 28.
Three of those players are NGA-tied draftees, with Lachie Jones (indigenous) and Reef McInnes (Filipino) having bids matched under the program, would not have been able to have been matched had they been a year younger, thereby removing all of the welfare and development support they’d received over the journey.
Jack Peris, son of Australia’s first Indigenous gold medal-winning Olympian and dual-sport athlete, Nova Peris, has been coaxed away from athletics by St Kilda’s NGA program and has strong links with the indigenous players at the club who have mentored him. After the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, the Melbourne Grammar student goes into his draft year knowing that if he gets selected in the first round then the Saints won’t be able to match.
Will St Kilda be forced to use their first pick on him to avoid the possibility of a club selecting him after them in the first round? The prospect of an 18-year-old kid to have the promise of his pathway potentially taken from him is devastating. Maybe he will choose to concentrate on the Olympics and walk away from AFL, thereby making a complete mockery of the original intent of creating the NGA: to lure young athletes from other sports to footy. He is arguably the top prospect from the NT in 2021 and with a story like his he could be the main headline for all the wrong reasons.
Austin Harris is another Suns FNQ Academy talent who would have qualified for NGA due to his Thai heritage through his mother, Ticha. His father, Errol Harris, played cricket up to Sheffield Shield level and Austin had to make a choice between AFL and cricket when his scholarship came up. Not just any scholarship, but the coveted Troy Clarke Scholarship, which is the preeminent award for Queensland teen talent, so named after the scout who talent identified Kurt Tippett.
Aussie was just selected in the AFL Academy program, which makes up the top 21 prospects for the 2021 draft, after he won the MVP award at his U16s national championships. It seems like the Suns are going to have to match bids this year, but even if their star prospect is bid upon early they are in a position to easily match any bid.
The Suns Academy Class of 2021 runs deep and could again see four players drafted, or possibly more. One player who won’t be among them is McLoffty Gaidan, whose recent tragic passing highlights the need for extra resources in player development and welfare for indigenous kids in elite player pathways. Not fewer, as the recent AFL austerity measures will bring.
There isn’t any direct racial motivation or question about the underlying motivations behind the AFL tearing down the NGA pathway for the very top prospects. Yet the decision does discriminate because it treats indigenous and multicultural teenagers in the footy states differently to all youth in non-traditional AFL states. It is problematic because mainly Melbourne clubs want access to kids who they haven’t put any development into, as occurs in the open draft, yet it ignores the body of evidence that these young men need a greater level of assistance.
So what if the Western Bulldogs got lucky with gaining access to the best prospect in the draft? Sydney got the fifth-best by dint of being from their academy. It could have easily been the other way around. Collingwood will look to match a bid on their father-son prospect early in the 2021 draft, but if he was an NGA prospect instead they would likely lose him.
Then there’s Jamarra Ugle-Hagan himself. Has this whole debate put him at risk of tall poppy syndrome that Australians are so prone to falling for? Will he be booed like Adam Goodes if he speaks out on racial vilification or maybe just booed for a more flimsy reason? The Goodes experience held a mirror to AFL fandom and found it wanting, at a time when we thought the vilification of Robbie Muirs and Nicky Winmar was far behind, only to find it raising its ugly head to force one of the greatest players of the modern era into retirement and exile because he spoke out against racism.
Like all high-profile indigenous players, Ugle-Hagan will experience vilification both directly and indirectly during his career, but with the education and ongoing support of his club, such incidents will be able to be handled with the holistic approaches of NGA mentors and educators. Yet AFL austerity and disincentivising NGA will see much of that welfare and support trashed.
The talent and character of the kid have so far stood up to public scrutiny. He’s got spunk and charisma to go with exceptional ability, which it has to be a testament to the Western Bulldogs that they’ve identified and groomed him to get to this moment, rather than an undeserved hand out to a random kid based on his ethnicity. Now kids following his path are likely to be largely abandoned by the 15 NGA clubs.
Greater Western Sydney also has an NGA zone in the Riverina that used to be part of their Talent Academy zone, but it was too productive to limit the area south of the Barassi Line to one club, even if it is in NSW. It begs the question if GWS can have an NGA zone granted as an exception to remedy unfairness, why can’t the whole scheme be decoupled from particular areas and re-assigned across the country?
Instead of an academy for all multicultural people, just make an academy for indigenous players in remote areas and create other programs for children of migrants or urban indigenous kids that aren’t hitched to draft compromise.
The AFLW has a brilliant system where academies are set up by every club and players get to designate which states they are willing to be selected in. Girls and women from all backgrounds are given access to development and welfare support, especially those relocating from rural areas and those engaged in education pathways. Even AFL clubs without AFLW teams, such as Hawthorn and Port Adelaide, produce graduates who end up getting drafted in whichever state they nominate.
The NGA thrives in the women’s competition and has dramatically increased the quality of each draft, which in turn boosts the standard of the competition itself. Obviously, due to the length of the season and pay disparity, these reforms were necessary, but it just throws the entire system into sharp relief.
In their headlong scramble to attempt to mollify certain clubs and stakeholders over perceived draft compromise, the AFL has encroached the mark by creating an unfair academy pathway system that discriminates against young boys and men on the basis of their ethnicity and location. Indigenous youth need the NGA pathways investment to be able to give them a level playing field and ensure they are fully prepared for life in AFL no matter what level they end up playing.
Educator Edmund Rice started out with the philosophy that marginalised people just needed a hand up, not a handout. That’s what NGA represents. A hand up. Not a handout.