Social justice incorporated

31 May 2018

Despite the corporate sloganeering of recent years, the AFL has a chequered history when it comes to the treatment of racism in sport.


It’s the late seventies. A windswept suburban football ground in the middle of a Melbourne winter, still a very much a white man’s world. The throngs in the outer spurt support for their respective teams, united only in their mutual hatred of the umpire, colloquially known as the white maggot. Except this day the ‘white maggot’ is black. His name, Glenn James (yes a relation).

On display that day, the dynamic ‘Fabulous’ Phil Carmen perhaps the most brilliant and volatile player of his age. James paid a free kick against Carmen resulting in a tirade of abuse from inside and outside the boundary line. Carmen was infuriated.

“You black c***, you’re a f******disgrace, that is the worst decision in the history of the world, I’m going find your f****** house and I’m going to burn it down,” screamed Carmen, charging at the slightly built James.

“You can’t burn down a tin shed, Fabulous,” was James’ laconic reply.

As with many of his generation, a razor sharp wit was James’ best defence in the face of blatant racism. His strongest statement was being a man ahead of his time. An Aboriginal man brave enough to take the field week in, week out for 166 games during a period where racism was an open part of the daily lexicon and political correctness was just a twinkle in the eye of the new left. James, a Vietnam veteran is the first and last Aboriginal umpire to ever officiate at the VFL/AFL level.

Aboriginal players on the other hand have always been an integral part of the game. Today, the AFL has 81 male players who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, which makes up 10% of the AFL list and is the sort of over representation that we want. It is something to celebrate, but let’s not sugar coat how we got here, let’s not be grandiose about noble gestures of inclusivity.

Despite the corporate sloganeering of recent years, the AFL has a chequered history when it comes to the treatment of racism in sport. It’s not unique in this sense, society continues to have a problem.

The AFL pats itself on the back for twelve years ago starting the Indigenous round, from this year known as the Sir Doug Nicholls round, (another distant relative). Yet less than five years ago we saw Adam Goodes, a 372 game, 2 x Brownlow medalist, 2 x Premiership player, a member of the Aboriginal team of the century, oh and an Australian of the year in 2014, virtually run out of the game by racist crowds around Australia and AFL inaction.

There was much debate among pundits and learned talkback callers as to why people booed Goodes every time he gained possession, which was a lot. Some argued it was because Goodes had pointed out the girl in the crowd who called him an ‘ape’, others argued that it was because he played for too many free kicks. If the latter was the case, then half of the AFL’s playing list should be condemned to the same treatment each week.

If only he just stuck to football and kept his mouth shut and did nothing when he was called an ape. If only he had just laughed off Eddie McGuire for suggesting he be used to promote King Kong the musical.

If only he didn’t celebrate a goal during Aboriginal round by performing an Aboriginal war dance in which he mimed throwing a spear. It was all too much for Andrew Bolt.

If only he didn’t stand up for himself and his people and just did what he was paid to do. If only he just shut his mouth, played the game and left the rest of us to enjoy the footy without forcing us to think or examine our behaviour, then the booing wouldn’t have grown louder and louder and louder.

It was clear that in the minds of many that Goodes had become too uppity.

Maybe it was being bestowed with the honour of being Australian of the Year. The message sent by the AFL community was that Aboriginal players are all well and good, as long as they remain brilliant but submissive, and never, ever to remind us of our history and its’ ongoing impact on their community to this very day.

Since then there has been several instances of over the fence racism directed at Aboriginal players. This is in part to a climate of prejudice that was emboldened by the Goodes affair. A banana thrown at Adelaide small forward and future Hall of Famer Eddie Betts, is one example.

The success and advancement of Aboriginal players in the league, is not AFL’s achievement it should gloat about. The success and advancement is the direct result of the strength and resilience of the players themselves. VFL sides in the 20s, 30s, 40s etc., didn’t recruit Aboriginal players out of a sense of social responsibility, they recruited them because they could play and play very well.

The fact that Aboriginal players have blossomed in the VFL/AFL competition is not due to the brilliance of the administrators. It is down to the strength, courage and determination Aboriginal players, families and communities who support them.

Aboriginal team 1944, Doug Nicholls, center, second row from the front, to his left Rupert James.

The move for social justice in this country was initiated by Aboriginal people long before the AFL incorporated that ethos into their brand. Through continued agitation, silent strength, calm resilience, wit, sheer brilliance or whatever it takes for the betterment of our people. The AFL has a great deal more to learn from us than we have to learn from them.

Let’s not forget that, this Sir Doug Nicholls Round, otherwise we’ll be doing him and every other Aboriginal player and that one Aboriginal umpire a disservice.

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