Sean Gorman’s Legends: The AFL Indigenous Team of the Century (2011) demonstrates the depth of Indigenous talent in the game of Australian Rules football. Gorman interviews players selected in the best Indigenous team over the history of the game and tells the stories of their personal connections with it. In so doing, he also reveals a broader story about Aboriginality and sport.
Tellingly, all but two players were still alive at the time of selection and composition. Gorman explains the relative youth of a team selected to cover the entire twentieth century by showing just how few Aboriginals played VFL before the 1980s. He writes: ‘For many years it was believed that the first indigenous player was Joe Johnson, a 55-game defender who played in Fitzroy’s 1904–1905 premiership team’. This was not correct, because ‘Albert “Pompey” Austin played for Geelong in 1872, debuting against Carlton after arriving from the Framlingham mission’.5050. Sean Gorman, Legends, 7. The Framlingham indigenous footballers became part of a powerful team in the Western District of Victoria in the next generation. Nadel, ‘Aborigines and Australian Football’.View all notes Gorman might also have pointed out that while it was Austin’s debut it was also his elite-level swan song. He had a poor game and became a target for ridicule among the crowd. He ‘was promptly forgotten by the football community’ and returned to bush football and athletic sports.
It is hard not to suspect a form of racism behind the laughter directed at Austin. Would a white player have come in for the same scorn? An 1862 report of an unspecified game in Adelaide, between the ‘pinks’ and the ‘blues’, contains a similar sense of racially tinged fun to be had at the expense of Aboriginal participants.
Several aborigines who were present were permitted to play on both sides, and we must confess that for activity and good play they bore favorable comparison with the white-fellows. They seemed to bear their ‘spills’ very good humouredly, and their grotesque actions afforded rather too much amusement to the ‘pinks’ and the ‘blues,’ inasmuch as they ‘couldn’t do it for laughing.’
While they are seen as competent as the white men, once their difference in method or technique is brought to bear they are rendered ‘grotesque’ by the report. Attitudes such as these suggest reasons why Aboriginal men may have been reluctant to play more often with whites. They also intimate the difficulty white footballers might have had in taking any Aboriginal diversion from footballing convention seriously.
Of fundamental importance is the possibility that Gorman may also have been able to point to a number of other Aboriginal players if not for the massive prohibitions of a racist society and their embodiment in the Aborigines’ Protection Board. In 1893, the Argus reported that an ‘aboriginal from Coranderrk applied for permission to play football at South Melbourne during the coming season, but the board feared that the granting of the application might lead to numerous other similar requests, and refused it’. Had a more liberal attitude obtained – and had the VFA (and VFL after it) been willing to force the issue – the history of race relations within Australian Rules football might have been changed unimaginably.
Yet Gorman is aware that the search for chronological origins is a diversion and he makes the important point that pioneering is not just a condition of being first or early. Following up to carry the flame in times of marginality is also a valuable ‘pioneering’ role.
It is not just Austin or Johnson who can be seen as the Indigenous pioneers of the game. Since the 1930s, the game has only seen a few Indigenous players in the VFL in each era: Doug Nicholls (Fitzroy: 1932–37, Norm McDonald (Essendon: 1947–53), Polly Farmer (Geelong: 1962–67) and Syd Jackson (Carlton: 1969–1976). In a sense then, these players were all pioneers; each creating a space so that others might follow.
As Gorman suggests, it is only from the 1980s that an influx of Aboriginal players into the VFL can be observed. South Australian Aboriginal footballer, Vince Copley said of the 1960s: ‘I mean you look at the AFL or VFL of the time. Doug Nicholls might have been one bloke, and another was Norm McDonald – he played for Essendon – and Ted Lovett was playing but apart from that there was nobody’. It is possible to nominate figures that Copley missed but his words make the point.
Yet for all its history of racist exclusion and colonialist mentality, Australian rules have made enormous strides in the past 30 years. Its development of Indigenous players and promotion of anti-racist agendas brings a lot of deserved credit to the AFL. The fact that they have turned their game around in a number of ways provides an exemplar to which Australian soccer can and should aspire.
Gorman’s interviews follow a template. Each interviewee is asked a similar set of questions, one of which is about their formative sporting experiences. A great sense of sporting diversity emerges in the answers, with Rugby League, cricket, basketball, athletics and boxing all playing a role in the sporting development of many of these players. Chris Johnson, who grew up in Broadmeadows in Victoria, claims, ‘I had a lot of sports at my fingertips and I guess playing all those sports really got me connected with football and helped a lot’.
Four of the 22 players interviewed identified soccer as part of their sporting development. West Coast Eagle, Chris Lewis played soccer in the Perth private school to which he obtained a scholarship. He says, ‘I played a bit of soccer. Back then it was a bit like the ethnics played that and we played footy but you know as a kid you just got into anything’. Adelaide Crow, Andrew McLeod played soccer in Darwin, along with a wide range of other sports. Another Eagle, Peter Matera also played soccer, influenced by his Italian father who played goalkeeper for a local club in Wagin (WA). Matera claims:
Because Dad had played soccer and I used to watch him playing soccer I thought I would try it; he was a goalie. Footy was the main sport and I used to get told off at school about playing soccer. We had a new teacher and he was soccer mad and a few of my mates said, ‘Let’s put ourselves down and play in the soccer team.’ The school football side then started getting beaten and the headmaster said, ‘If you don’t get into footy and play in the footy side you’re going to have a hard time.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’
Given that Matera seemed not to buckle under those kinds of threats, it is a shame that Gorman’s project does not encourage him to tease out the reasons why he eventually makes the shift to Australian Rules. It could be the ‘ethnic’ dimension. It could be peer or social pressure. The reader is left to assume a sense of inevitability in the eventual transition.
The most telling case, however, is the story of Adam Goodes. His is a transition that is explained. Influenced by his circle of white friends, Goodes had never played Australian Rules until he was 13, playing soccer until that time. The turning point came when his family moved to Merbein, just outside of Mildura in Victoria.
Mum was the biggest thing that directed me into AFL. The only reason I swapped to AFL was when I went to play for a local soccer team Merbein up in Mildura, we went down to the local soccer fields. There was no junior teams, [it] was all seniors. So I would have been a 13-year-old Indigenous boy trying to knock around with all these Italian men. Across the field they happened to be playing AFL and Mum suggested that I give it a go. There seemed to be a lot of kids running around there and I was a lot taller and bigger than those kids. It just fitted for me.
Anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggests that junior soccer was in fact available to Goodes in Mildura at this time had he chosen to play. Indeed, this moment is two years after the time that Chris Tsivoglu and others from the Mildura United club started to encourage Aboriginal children and teenagers in the Mildura region to play soccer as a means of giving them some options and training. In 2006, Selma Milovanovic wrote in the Age that
Mildura United began as a Greek club in 1916 [sic]. But that changed in 1992, when its current president, Chris Tsivoglou, got out of his car in the main street of Merbein to confront bored Koori kids throwing rocks at his car. An older relative stood up to him. Mr .Tsivoglou asked the man whether he could teach the young vandals ball skills so they did not waste their time. The man agreed. Now the young vandals are successful, law-abiding men.
Goodes’ explanation does not seem to tell the whole story. The kinds of pressures brought to bear on Matera, and the ‘ethnic’ and ‘soccer-as-a-kid’ factors mentioned by Lewis seem to be more adequate explanations. Goodes’ mother’s innocuously framed suggestion obscures a massive cultural pressure: Australian Rules has more symbolic power in the communities, therefore grown men play Australian Rules; they do not belong in soccer, a game for ethnics and kids.
It is not within Gorman’s ambit to discuss the complex mechanics of such code shifts. Nonetheless, his failure to draw out the cultural pressure imparted on Aboriginal men to live up to certain sporting expectations from both outside and within their communities allows the rhetoric of nature and inevitability to over-ride the specific dynamics of any given individual’s story.