This year, the Indigenous Sir Douglas Nicholls AFL round will be held over two weeks. Games were scheduled for Darwin, Alice Springs, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne, but Victoria’s latest COVID-19 lockdown has thrown a large spanner in the works, with the AFL doing its best to solve the fixture puzzle. Regardless, it will be the biggest – and longest – celebration of First Nations players that the Australian game has seen.
The theme of the round is “Our Legacy – This is Us”, to honour the individual and collective persistence of Indigenous players.
A special tribute will be paid to Carlton great Syd Jackson, who was the only Aboriginal player in a senior Victorian side when he was recruited from East Perth by coach Ron Barassi in 1968.
Jackson was also celebrated in last year’s Sir Doug Nicholls round – the AFL is reprising the tribute because the COVID-affected 2020 round was a more low-key affair.
Jackson was a member of the Stolen Generation. He’s said that if it wasn’t for football, his life “could have been starkly different. There was a lot that I lost in terms of my family, my culture, my language. I had a lot of help from people, and I worked hard to reward them by not failing.”
Chronicling Indigenous players’ fight
Economist and Carlton supporter Lionel Frost remembers watching Jackson during Carlton’s golden years (Jackson helped defeat Collingwood in the legendary 1970 grand final).
With his colleagues Pieter Van Dijk and Andrea Kirk-Brown of the Department of Management, Associate Professor Frost has written a paper, Empowering Indigenous Networks: Collaborative Governance and the Development of a Racial Vilification Code in the Australian Football League.
It examines how First Nations players worked with each other, and with AFL leadership, to fight racial vilification on the field and in the clubrooms.
Their research found that before the 1990s, Aboriginal players in Victoria were nearly always alone. And some of the greatest among them, such as Polly Farmer, were not widely known to be Indigenous until after their careers were over.
“Often people had to move from Darwin or WA to Melbourne, where the environment was really, really foreign to them, really confronting,” Dr Frost says.
Syd Jackson, for instance, found the Melbourne winters to be particularly cold. Carlton was a multicultural club, and he felt welcome there, but often confronted racial abuse on the field and from spectators.
“I got, ‘You black bastard’; ‘Go back to the desert!’; ‘Midnight’. It actually fired me up, by playing a lot better and focusing.”
Mostly, Jackson ignored the abuse; Associate Professor Frost says there were very few other options open to him.
Robert Muir, who played for St Kilda in the 1970s, recently revealed he received little support from his club, and was sometimes vilified by his teammates. He retaliated against on-field abusers, and was suspended for 54 games in a career that spanned seven seasons.
“Syd could handle it, I couldn’t,” Muir told a journalist.
Associate Professor Frost suggests Muir’s extreme isolation likely contributed to his on-field aggression.
Indigenous players were finally able to improve their circumstances when they “reached out to each other”, he says. “They drew strength from that … it was a collaborative process.”
A key player in this development, and one Frost particularly admires, was Michael “Magic” McLean, who debuted for Footscray in 1983, going on to play for Brisbane in the ’90s.
McLean’s white father trained him in sports, including boxing, “but it was his Indigenous mother who stressed the importance of education and projecting a positive image”, Associate Professor Frost says.
Although Footscray welcomed McLean, he was also subjected to “terrible racial abuse” from supporters.
Nicky Winmar’s moment in AFL history
In 1993, Nicky Winmar made history by turning to a section of the crowd that had been taunting him all day, lifting his St Kilda guernsey and pointing to his black skin. Two years later, the AFL produced a draft code to tackle racial vilification; progress was slow because no comparable models from other sporting codes existed.
The AFL’s approach was tested in May 1995 when Essendon’s Michael Long insisted the club lodge a formal complaint with the AFL over a remark made to him by Collingwood’s Damien Monkhorst. Long wanted an apology from Monkhorst, but in a private meeting between the two men (Collingwood rejected the option of mediation), Monkhorst told Long, “You took it the wrong way, mate”.
After the meeting, AFL chairman Ross Oakley held a press conference to say that the issue was resolved, but realised from Long’s body language that he was unhappy with the outcome. Oakley visited Long at Essendon the next day and apologised to him, helping to build trust between the two men.
One day later, Essendon played the Brisbane Bears. When the game was over, Michael McLean, who had by then moved to Brisbane, approached Long and embraced him on the field.
The moment had great ramifications for the AFL and its Indigenous players. It began a tradition of First Nations players embracing each other on the ground after each game to support each other for the racial abuse they endured.
The strengthening of bonds between Indigenous players also helped their cause within the AFL. The Empowering Indigenous Networks paper says: “McLean considered Long to be ‘like a little brother to me’. Long said, ‘You better give me a hand’.”
Potential to make positive change
Oakley’s commitment to tackling racial vilification was also important. He understood the AFL had great potential to be a force for positive change.
He said: “We saw the code as playing a huge role in the community. It told us that this is more than just a sport to people that follow it, this is part of their life, and we recognised that that gave us not just a huge responsibility, but a tremendous opportunity to use it to have an impact beyond just the sporting circle.”
Oakley instructed AFL media manager Tony Peek to interview Indigenous players so the AFL could better understand the scope of the problem. McLean, Long, Gilbert McAdam (Brisbane Bears) and Che Cockatoo Collins (Essendon) emerged as natural leaders in the group. They argued that educating non-Indigenous players was crucial.
The AFL anti-vilification code was developed “smoothly” after these discussions, the paper says. Vilified players were empowered to make a complaint through their club or umpire on the day. The AFL would attempt to resolve the issue through mediation in the case of a first offence, and if the vilified player was unhappy with the outcome of the mediation, the case would be referred to the AFL tribunal.
“After the code of conduct was introduced, it was going to be very hard for anyone to resist,” Associate Professor Frost says. “You wouldn’t have lasted in the game. The penalties are really severe, not only for a first offence, but a third offence would see you out of the game.”
Importantly, racial vilification training became compulsory for players at entry level.
A television advertising campaign reinforced the anti-racism message – as does the Indigenous round.
Collingwood ‘a villain in the piece’
“Collingwood, I’m afraid, is a bit of a villain in the piece,” Associate Professor Frost says. “Collingwood is bound by every AFL rule, so if a Collingwood player abused someone on the field, they would be subject to the AFL’s code of conduct.
“But within Collingwood, there was apparently no internal mechanism, no procedure by which an Indigenous player (or a member of any other minority group) could raise any concern about inappropriate behaviour … I’m sure that’s now going to be addressed.”
AFL supporters are also not bound by the code – and so racial abuse from the stands and on social media continues. Although Adam Goodes was admired and honoured as a player, he paid a high price for speaking out about crowd behaviour.
But overall, the experience of Indigenous AFL players contains positive lessons for activists in other arenas, Associate Professor Frost believes. Making connections across divides at a grassroots level is a powerful way of gathering strength and building momentum for a cause.
When that’s combined with sympathetic leadership, then meaningful change becomes possible.
This article was originally posted on How First Nations AFL players worked to fight racial vilification on and off the field