Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Monday 3 August 2015

Multicultural Round, or "Spot the Wog"

This article appeared first in the Age as "A multicultural AFL? Not quite" 13 July 2013. A year on and it was just as fresh.  I tweak it on and off as the AFLdiversity site releases its new figures. The latests figures suggest the game is becoming even more monocultural. 

Someone needs to call the AFL out on this one. As if we don’t have enough ‘noble work’ rounds already, we are this week lumbered with the most ludicrously framed of them all, Multicultural Round. The only round more silly would be the one that celebrated the game’s great Barrys.

Now I’m not against the idea of celebrating cultural diversity in any arena. More power to those who want to remind us that we live in a diverse and multicultural society. Yet, no matter how many celebrations of Anzac, Aboriginality, women's round, heritage round, whatever round, a great number of the game's supporters seem entirely opposed to these ideas. The booing of Adam Goodes is only the surface of the intolerance that seems to flow through Australian rules football. Ultimately the game is xenophobic. Moreover, that fear of the outsider is something of which it is perversely proud.

If this were not the case and anyone in the AFL bothered to think deeply for even a moment about the motivations of the Multicultural Round they would run a mile.
Are these the face of multicultural AFL footy:
a Wallaby and a bloke they don't understand?

Unfortunately, the AFL does not have all that much to celebrate in terms of its cultural diversity – yet. While the AFL Diversity website claims that “Australian football has the extraordinary power to bring people together regardless of their background,” the proof of the pudding is just not there. For example, the AFL concedes that of the 811 listed AFL players, only 24 were born overseas (9 to Australian parents), just 3 per cent. This can be compared with the general Australian population in which over 27 per cent were born overseas. (The AFL claims this figure is only 20 per cent.)

Perhaps it could be argued that AFL figures are not representative of the game of Australian rules as a whole. This may be the case but would then be an indictment of the development pathways available for the non-Australian born. Moreover, footy has had many years to integrate the overseas born as elite players and has failed to do so. It's not as if substantial numbers of migrants have only just recently popped up on our shores. Since 1970 the non-Australian born have represented over 20 per cent of the Australian population. The lowest figure since 1890 is about 10 per cent in the immediate post-Second-World-war years.

Graph: 1.1 Australia's population born overseas(a)(b)

The AFL claims a higher figure in relation to those of a “Multicultural background”. About 12% (down from 14% in 2014 and 15% in 2013) of listed players fit the AFL’s Multicultural criteria of having at least one parent born overseas. So the AFL falls down here as well, with over 45 per cent of the Australian population fitting this criterion. In 2016 A total of 113 players (14%) were from a multicultural background (i.e. having at least one parent born overseas) and 20 players (2.5%) were born overseas among those listed in the AFL in 2016." [I will rewrite this section once the 2017 figures come out.]

When we look more closely at the AFL's figures, further problems appear. The AFL Diversity website lists 99 'Multicultural players (down from 112 in 2014, 121 in 2013 and 118 in 2012), carefully noting their parents' country of origin. Of the 99, over one-half have one parent from Anglophone countries, mainly Britain, Ireland and New Zealand. The evidence suggests that only 7 of the 811 listed players are from non-Anglophone families. Steele Sidebottom, born in Australia to an Australian father and English mother does not strike me as a significant embodiment of cultural diversity. And the idea that Heath Grundy’s Kiwi mother makes him somehow ‘multicultural’ borders on the perverse. From the list of past multicultural players: Dermot Brereton? The man so sensitive to diversity that he told Adam Goodes to HTFU. Really?

Bizarrely, this definition would allow most of the game’s Anglo-Australian founders to be described as Multicultural and eligible for selection in the all-time Multicultural Australian rules team.

Yet this construction of multicultural identity is not universally applied in the AFL’s thinking. Fourth generation Australian Ron Barrasi is included in an historical list of Multicultural players. There’s a tokenism here that cares more about the woggy surname than it does about the realities and differences of Italian-Australian culture. It’s all just a bit silly.

Actually it isn’t just silly. It’s also pernicious. The problem with all of this lies in the construction of a ‘Multicultural’ identity as opposed to another (true blue?) identity. The diversity gurus at the AFL seem to think that in breaking Australian society into two categories (insiders and outsiders, native-born and migrants, or Australians and multiculturals?) they are doing us a favour when in fact they are replicating the kind of Hansonite stereotypes that gave us Cronulla. When Eddie McGuire makes stupid comments about the “Felafel Land” of Western Sydney or Kevin Sheedy reveals his ignorance in talking about the immigration department supplying supporters for the Western Sydney Wanderers, they articulate the AFL’s failure to understand the social fissures encouraged by this false division between ‘real’ and ‘wannabee’ Aussies.

The bottom line is that in a multicultural society we are ALL multicultural. We all have ethnic and cultural baggage that sets us up in relation to the fluid process that we call multicultural Australia. We are all in it together and none of the imported cultures deserve the priority that is the privilege of the truly indigenous.

The AFL is to be congratulated for recognising and using its great social clout for good in relation to any number of issues. The way the AFL has supported indigenous players in their struggle to be recognised as powerful and legitimate contributors to the game is one of our great sport stories of recent times. It should also be supported for acknowledging that it is not a particularly diverse sport and taking steps to correct that.

But I’ll be buggered if I am going to pat them on the back for playing catch-up football in relation to the vital issue of cultural diversity. Let me know when the siren sounds on this game because I reckon we have a while to go. Meanwhile I’m off to a game this weekend that, for all its faults - and despite the FFA's attempts to limit the appearance and reality of diversity - is so culturally diverse that to play “Spot the Wog” would be redundant. I’ll leave that to the AFL.


  1. Max Dunn
    Kew, Victoria 3101

    You make some appropriate points in your recent Fairfax article "A Multicultural AFL? Not quite". There is no question that the AFL's spruiking of multicultural round is a brazen attempt to spread the marketability of the game and increase profitability. This line of thinking has been behind every policy and rule change initiated by Andrew Demitriou over his tenure. But unfortunately your article quickly dissolves into obscurity and irrelevance.

    What do you really hope to achieve in questioning the blood purity of AFL players described by the league as multicultural? You are trying to paint the AFL as a "whites" club, but further than this, are blaming the AFL itself for the nationality of it's players. You find the AFL's multicultural rhetoric offensive because there aren't enough people of diverse backgrounds in the sport for your liking. In this light, you paint the league's token efforts to advocate for multiculturalism as potentially harmful, likening the effect of such policies to Pauline Hanson and the Cronulla riots to add politically correct shock value. That is; you present the AFL as one of the foremost threats to multiculturalism in Australia.

    You find it "bizzare" that the definition employed by the AFL would lead to anglo-Australian's being considered mutlicultural, then contradict this statement by stating that "in a multicultural society we are all multicultural".

    The underlying message you present is that due to the racial make up of the athletes at the top tier of Australian Rules Football, the AFL dare not attempt to describe itself as multicultural. Doing so is so offensive because this anglo-club AFL has only 3% of players born outside of Australia, completely ignoring the fact that ours is the only country in which this sport is widely played and thus that 3% is not remotely unreasonable.

    But the real stupidity lies with your close, "I'm off to a game so culturally diverse that to play "spot the wog" would be redundant". For all your desperate attempts to discredit the AFL as partaking in "pernicious" attitudes to race, you finish by openly admitting that your weekend plans are based entirely around race. You will be attending an event purely due to the ethnicity of the participants. It is perfectly clear that anybody in this country, regardless of background, can play in the AFL if they love the sport and have the aptitude and commitment to do so. This is not enough for you; the AFL must be blamed for the genetic make up of it's players despite how unbelievably stupid this idea is, whilst you are free to advocate the idea that basing your preferences around race is honorable.

    You have reached the point in this article where in attempting to rigorously follow a politically correct interpretation of the AFL and it's marketing, you have betrayed your own racially charged motivations. Your article was a complete waste of good newspaper real estate and should never have been written. I only hope your government funded research into football is not such a waste of the public's time.

    1. Despite the fact this comment is either a wilful misreading or a product of ignorance (which I'm not sure) I have left it here in a spirit of editorial openness and because I intended to get back to at at some stage. I don't think I will. It's just too malicious and silly for words to take it seriously.

  2. Well done for annoying the racist boganball types and supporting the real game of the people . These white anglo bigots have to learn the hard way that this is no longer their country and they are becoming the second class citizens . Perhaps time to go Home to England while they still can


  3. Comment from Ted Hopkins

    Your article in Saturday's Age is outstanding and the type of incisive analytics that is sadly missing from the AFL scene that has become reckless in its attempts to promote and sell the game irrespective of integrity, knowledge, and ensuring a competitive fair competition.

    Prior to the silly round 16 'Many cultures one game round' an equally silly round 14 was touted as the 'Women's Round.' The Victorian Women's Foundation commissioned me to write for their online magazine 'Sheilas' on the subject of Why women love footy so much. I've attached the file of my essay and I pleased to see your essay also challenges the sad state of the AFL's marketing and sales obsessions.

    In a similar spirit I've also attached my recent AFR Review article, 'Off the mark' for your interest.

    1. Thanks for the comments Ted. Readers should chase down his AFR piece because it is an excellent analysis of the AFL's movement towards marketing and promotion and making money ahead of running a fair and balanced competition.

      Ted is no jaundiced soccerista either. He played 29 games for Carlton, including the 1970 Grand Final in which he kicked four goals.

  4. Received from Andrew Funston

    Read your piece on the weekend and was going to send an email this morning. Beautifully written as always Ian, and I couldn't agree more with your argument. Where I'm less convinced is the comparison you make with soccer, not because of your reading of the local scene but because of what you don't say about that global sports business. While soccer might have more claim on the multicultural and diversity tag, that's true in part simply by virtue of the history of soccer and its spread as a world game, with its apotheosis in the World Cup (with a budget that could end world poverty I suspect). World Cup and its mediated ideologies worry me no less than the AFL self-serving claims, and it's classic 'opium of the people' or 'bread and circuses', and especially in some of the most oppressive countries in the world. Those ubiquitous team shirts worn by the fans are probably sown up in the sweatshops of Bangladesh. All around the world men are drinking beers and enjoying one another's company watching hours and hours of soccer while the women are sweeping their floors and slaving over smoky stoves. Yes, loved your piece, but would also love to hear your thoughts on 'the world game' as a problematic cultural mega-space. Cheers, Andrew

    1. Andrew,

      World soccer (at the level of administration) is despicable and I agree that the game generally is suffused with the problems of racism, sexism and exploitation you point out.

      As you acknowledge, I was talking about the local scene and its diversity and honesty, warts and all. It’s probably no purer but it has a refreshing transparency that has allowed 3 or 4 generations of wogs, anglos and skips to develop their own take on intercultural multiculturalism as opposed to the assimilationist model trundled out by the AFL and other bodies.

      But yes, if AFL stinks then FIFA is rancid.

  5. Love it!! And your praise of the promotion of the Indigenous players is very apt. As someone who has suffered through the retreat of the aesthetic aspects of Australian Rules since about 1993, I often state that the advancement of the Aboriginal players in the last 20 years was the only thing that made the game bearable to watch at times.

    However, I think you are a little presumptious to castigate Dermot Brereton. At least insofar as he has been known to provide, at the very least, moral assistance to Irish Nationalists. Granted, its not much, but its something. :)

    Savvas Tzionis