The SportingJournal

Australian Football and improving Indigenous relations

With Indigenous Round approaching, I thought it would be good to take a look at the Indigenous contribution of 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 mixed races are forced to 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.

Australian Football is certainly the choice of sport for most indigenous Australians and they 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 an opossum 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 happened on April 17 1993 when an indigenous footballer for St Kilda by the name of 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 and 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 trivial and “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 that we lived in back then.

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 very 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.

Nowdays, 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.

Cover image credit: Essendon FC/Instagram

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