Footy Still Locks Out Indigenous Players


A new football season is upon us, which for so many Victorians is like being told that, after six months of dreary hibernation, the stream of life is suddenly surging again in all its wondrous glory.

Some less-committed people may think this is odd considering it also heralds the onset of the rigours of a Melbourne winter but they still know and accept the oddities of footy fans.

For those who missed it, there has been one significant new event happen while footy fans meandered through a long hot summer. The Marngrook Footy Show has been brought back from the dead by SBS TV after being killed off by the ABC.

Marngrook has made a unique contribution to AFL football as the only footy show populated by indigenous commentators and presenters. Over several seasons, it had gathered a following of many tribes – white, black, brindle, old, young, deaf, blind and insane – who loved the spirit, fun, and quirkiness of a show that loved to celebrate the game as well as the massive contribution of the Indigenous community to the game.

However, this meant little to the ABC which claimed its low ratings made the costs unsustainable. Indeed, the ABC spokesperson sounded just like a commercial station boss when he announced the reasons for the demise of Marngrook.

Thankfully it is back, although with a couple of potential drawbacks. It will be shown in the relatively unknown backwater of the National Indigenous TV (NITV) channel rather than the up-front main SBS channel. It has also acquired the presence of former AFL star and serial wrong-doer Wayne Carey, whose media contributions in retirement have so far been mediocre. In high-profile AFL media, name alone does not a star make.

The Marngrook story prompted a lot of questions about the publicly-funded national broadcaster and its role as a communicator of diversity and public interest rather than a ratings chaser. There is another relevant question Marngrook asks, and that is about Indigenous access to participation.

Like most other white-run institutions the AFL has been for most of its 116-year history a racist organisation. And it’s a lot more recent than those stories about the trainers at Fitzroy refusing to rub down the Aboriginal players in the 1940s.

A former recruiting officer at Hawthorn, John Turnbull, revealed in The Age in 2008 that when he arrived at the club in 1995 a senior official pointed to his own white forearm and said: “Good luck, John and just remember, don’t draft anyone with skin darker than mine.”

It is a story that resonated on the last Saturday in September last year when Hawthorn, with half a dozen Indigenous men as key players in their team through 2012, almost won its second a premiership in four years, just pipped by the Swans, led by another Indigenous star, Adam Goodes.

Only recently I learned that the all-Indigenous Melbourne team, the Fitzroy Stars, had 36 rejections from various football leagues when it was trying to re-form a few years ago.  Finally it was accepted in 2008 by the Northern Football League, where it now performs with great aplomb.

Still, progress on eliminating racist attitudes at AFL level has been significant, as we saw last year when Collingwood player Dale Thomas reported his own supporters to the club for racially abusing an Indigenous opponent.

There is no question that Indigenous access to AFL clubs is much greater these days. The AFL boasts on its website that there are 69 Indigenous players – that’s 10 per cent of the total number players. There are also 90,000 participants in AFL-backed programs around the country. This is a commendable over-representation in a nation in which Indigenous people make up only 2.5 per cent of the population.

But this concentration on those playing the game hides the fact that there is little Indigenous participation in the AFL, beyond the boundary line. The AFL Commission is made up of white, mostly Anglo-Saxon, rich business types, male and female. The high-powered AFL executive arm is headed by a strong anti-racist of Greek Cypriot parents, Andrew Demetriou, but the executives under him retain the same look and feel as the Commission.

There are no Indigenous coaches and few have been groomed or employed as assistant coaches, or as football department support staff.

Once you move to the media box, it’s much the same. Beyond specialist Indigenous station broadcasters, you find a distinct lack of non-white, non Anglo-Saxon participants. In other words, what is reflected in the general media is also reflected in the AFL.

The AFL says on its website that it seeks to use Australian football as the vehicle to improve the quality of life in communities throughout Australia.  No question it is great at telling the world about its racism initiatives but it needs to show that it is more than a wonderful publicity machine.

For starters, it might do well to throw some of that new TV rights money at the Marngrook Footy Show and bring it into the mainstream, where it belongs.

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.