What We Can Learn From Indigenous Sports


In Australia, it is almost a cliché to claim that sport makes up for the lack of a "compelling national narrative" — we haven’t had a revolution, but we did have Don Bradman. We no longer depend on sport for our international reputation and we don’t really have to keep telling the world that we are "punching above our weight".

I worked with National Indigenous Television (NITV) for a few years. All the audience research amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people showed that they placed a high value on sport, for its health-giving and role model benefits, as well as its enjoyment as a spectacle and its contribution to Indigenous pride.

In the NRL 12 per cent of graded players are Indigenous and around 30 per cent are Pacific Islanders. Their participation in professional rugby league is not just a reflection of athletic aptitude but a special opportunity for economic advancement and inspiration of the young; and, in the Islanders’ case, to assist their people, as migrant communities, to take their place in the wider Australian society.

NITV broadcasts Indigenous-only competitions in rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules, cricket, basketball and golf, as well as weekly footy shows focused on Indigenous performance in league and Rules at the highest levels. The footy shows emphatically related to health, culture and community as well.

Indigenous sporting diversity, like Indigenous cultural diversity, would probably come as something of a surprise to many non-Indigenous Australians, reliant as they are on mainstream media.

But the notably mainstream NRL and AFL, at the heart of the drugs scandal, play an important role in relation to Indigenous Australia.

With 11 per cent of graded players identifying as Indigenous, the AFL shares with the NRL a markedly higher level of Indigenous participation than population figures would suggest. The AFL’s deep links to Indigenous communities, particularly remote ones, are well known and the code is committed to a range of partnership programs to improve quality of life in the communities.

The NRL’s season opener is now the Indigenous All Stars vs NRL All Stars match, accompanied by a week in which the Indigenous stars visit schools and communities to promote positive messages around the federal government’s Closing the Gap initiative, Learn Earn Legend. Chances are, kids and young people will be more likely to listen to their heroes than their teachers.

So elite competitive sport is important, for reasons that may be obvious or somewhat hidden, prosaic or profound. And there is a broad societal interest in its necessary reform.

In the meantime, on Saturday night, lounging in front of the TV, I managed to completely forget the gloom and doom besetting Australian sport as I watched Johnathan Thurston conduct the Indigenous All Stars around the paddock to a 32-6 win over the NRL side. Such is the power of live sport when brilliantly played.

In a country where "fair go" is in danger of disappearing as a defining national value (perhaps to be replaced by whingeing), sport is rare in affording equal rights to the participants and giving priority to healthy competition and fair play. At least, it used to be seen as doing so.

But this has now evolved into a mentality variously described as "win at all costs" (except perhaps when John the Bookie calls) and "whatever it takes", due to the fame and fortune now available to winners at the top level.

Huge amount of staff are required to manage this unsustainable mentality. According to the SMH’s Kathryn Wicks, "It is believed there are about 99 staff allocated to support a mid-range AFL team". Ninety-nine staff! I was already shocked to read last year that a leading NRL coach had a coaching staff of 20!

I would put on the review agenda, at least insofar as it relates to the AFL and NRL, the slashing of overheads and perhaps even the standardisation of overhead staffs. Perhaps a salary cap on management could be seen in the same way as the old strategic arms limitation talks.

A report over the weekend suggested Australian sport is an industry worth more than $8 billion. Going on the recent AFL and NRL rights deals, sport is evidently the most important content driver of the Australian television industry, both free to air and subscription.

It is just about the only thing you can watch on TV that is not scripted, that is capable of being in doubt until it’s over.

Team sports attract large and committed followings. People want to get together, to have something to follow, and it seems to me Australians now do so around sport on a scale and with an intensity that used to be the prerogative of religion. The passion and emotion of the 80,000-strong crowd at Sydney’s Olympic stadium in 2005, when Australia defeated Uruguay to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals, was extraordinary, surpassing anything I have experienced at any other sporting event, and possibly any other major event.

Drive through Victoria at any time during the footy season and you will find the AFL being discussed on radio, substantively or in passing, almost every hour. While I as an irritated northerner can make a desperate switch from ABC 774 to Radio National, I can’t deny that football of the Australian Rules variety is in the cultural DNA of Victorians.

Moreover, it does a human good, while satisfying normal human curiosity, to observe the physical best that humans can achieve, be it Cathy Freeman in 2000, Usain Bolt in 2012, or the All Blacks in almost any year.

So, yes, elite competitive sport is important, and it matters if performance and achievements are the result of cheating, be it through doping or match fixing. Even if only a small minority is doing the wrong thing, perceptions that the problems are more widespread are capable of killing public confidence in the institution.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.