Andrew McLeod’s speech to the United Nations

Good afternoon, my name is Andrew McLeod and I am here today to talk to you about combating racism through sport, and to do that I’m going to take you on a short journey with me – my journey.

 

I am a recently retired professional sportsman from the Australian Football League (the AFL) and I was lucky enough to compete at the national level for 16 years. I am an Indigenous Australian. Australia’s Indigenous peoples are both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; and I am a descendant of both Nations.

 

My great grandmother is a Wardaman woman of the Moy-Moy clan from the Northern Territory; our totem is the King Brown Snake.  My great grandfather is a Gumulgal man of the Wagadagam clan, from Mabiaug Island in the Torres Straits; our totem is the salt water crocodile.

 

As a young Indigenous person growing up in the bush I didn’t have to look too far to find racism, whether it was first or second hand I could never quite escape it, not that I knew the full impact that this negativity had on my people but I knew it wasn’t right.

 

My family were heavily affected by past government assimilation policies which brought about what is known to us as the ‘Stolen Generation’. My Great Grandmother was forcibly removed from her mother to the Kahlin compound about 500 kilometres north from her homeland.

 

My Great Great Grandmother was desperate to see her beloved daughter again, and in an attempt to negotiate or rescue her from the authorities, she walked most of those 500 kilometres to Darwin.

 

The Kahlin compound, which held hundreds of young Aboriginal children, was more or less a prison camp; food was limited, living conditions extremely harsh and the authorities cruel.  Access to families that could make the long journey to the compound was limited; my Great Great Grandmother could only look through the security fence and call out to her child from a distance.

 

My Great Great Grandmother would sit, watch and cry as she pined for her child, and she was not alone, many Mothers and Fathers would sit and wait, hoping for the return of their children. But it was to no avail; the parents were continually forced away by authorities.

 

My Great Great Grandmother lost a further 2 children to these policies of the past. These separations affected my family deeply through the loss of language, culture and extended family ties. Fortunately, through my families efforts I have been able to reconnect with a lot of my family and my homeland country.

 

Football, or Australian Rules as we know it, has been played in Australia for over 150 years. Aboriginal people played a similar game called Marn Grook for centuries before, a game where they used possum skin filled with grass as the ball. Playing sport for my people was a way to be seen as equal, even if it was only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. But it was a way Aboriginal people could find some sort of solace, especially in these compounds where the young boys and girls would play all different sports to escape the rigours of being institutionalised.

 

So to Aboriginal people this game called Football was an extension of our own Indigenous game, a game already familiar to many. The Europeans took note of this and when trying to establish a winning side in their own game they would invite the Natives to play a part, little did they know that they had opened the door for Aboriginal people to be considered as equal.

 

It took some years to even acknowledge the fact that Aboriginal players were part of this Australian game. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s, when they were even allowed to be registered as players. My Great Grandfather was one of the first registered Aboriginal footballers in Australia, and yet he was not even allowed to vote until 1967.

 

Racism was prevalent over this time and as a minority group Aboriginal people were treated as second class. Their land had been taken and they were driven away from their homelands, which saw language groups ripped apart and destroyed. However, the one thing that couldn’t be destroyed, was their spirits. Aboriginal people aren’t the oldest surviving living culture in the World for nothing, we are a resilient people.

 

The AFL haven’t always been leaders when it comes to community, education and development programs, the Racial Vilification laws in all honesty were a bit slow to be developed, and even then were well overdue.

 

It wasn’t until 1993 when Nicky Winmar (an Aboriginal player for the St Kilda Football Club in the state of Victoria), was racially abused by opposition supporters, and in return, he lifted his jumper pointing to the colour of his skin, which made the AFL sit up and take notice.

 

It was then that an exhibition game was organised to recognise and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Football prowess, whilst trying to raise awareness of the need to eliminate racism from our sport. It was an amazing spectacle with the Aboriginal All Stars taking on Australia’s biggest football club Collingwood. That day saw the All Stars victorious in a game to help raise awareness and celebrate our Countries Indigenous cultures, but it didn’t do a lot to prevent Racism from recurring.

 

It was in 1995 when Michael Long, (an Aboriginal player from Essendon Football Club also in Victoria) was racially abused by another opponent on the football field, that he and other senior Aboriginal players made a stance, that forced the AFL to address this issue properly.

 

The AFL proceeded to make new policies regarding its players and established a process that dealt with any issue relating to Racial Vilification on the field. Thereafter, they developed a program to educate every player and staff member on an AFL list about the policy and their responsibility to adhere to it. Since then, these policies have developed further and now include Religious and Disability vilification laws as well.

 

I entered the AFL system in 1995, the same year that Michael Long took his stance, and as a young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boy who had a front row seat to many different forms of racism. So I was a little sceptical about the new policies governing Australia’s biggest sporting code.

 

Nothing of this nature had been addressed in the past, and with two further incidents occurring over the next couple of years, the new policy was put under the microscope, stood the test and proved to be effective. Nowadays, every football competition in Australia, every player and official, are governed by the same policy. There are over 750,000 players across the Country, about 800 of those play in the AFL,  last year 7.1 million people passed through the gates in the AFL competition, so what we do as code has a huge influence on our supporters.

 

For Indigenous players of the past competing in the big competitions around Australia, it became easier to walk away and head back to the comforts of home then to put up with racial taunts by opponents and even their own team mates.

 

With the new policies in place and as a reflection of the changes to the Racial and Religious rules the biggest difference we have seen is an increase of Indigenous players playing in the AFL, in 1995 when it came to a head we made up about 5% of the AFL. Today we make up 11% of the AFL with a greater retention rate.

 

No longer do we get called Racist names on the field by opposing players like our predecessing brothers did, from the spectators over the fence it has become a thing of the past.

 

Along with the Apology given to the Stolen Generation by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, this would have to be one of the proudest moments in Australian history, the day we stood up and said NO to Racism.

 

The next step for Indigenous people in the AFL is to look for other ways to be involved, we have no representations at a board level in any of the 17 Clubs, no representation on the executive committees and we don’t hold any current Coaching positions, this is another agenda we must address.

 

I often think if my Great Grandmother was alive, how she might have felt and what impact it would have had on her and the thousands of children just like her who were ripped away from their parents.

 

It still saddens me when I think about it but I know that she, along with the other children from the Stolen Generation, would want us to forgive and move forward especially after the apology. I see it as another opportunity now for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people to be seen as equal and to achieve great things.

 

Comments

  1. Rick Kane says:

    What stops me in my tracks reading this is McLeod’s account of his Great Grandmother and his family’s sad part in the ‘Stolen Generations’. It is a vivid reminder, to quote Faulkner, that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”. And that the personal is political every step along the way.

    I have no direct reference points to comprehend this deep, deep sorrow people of the Stolen Generations or Indigenous people generally carry in relation to what they went (go) through. It is one of our nation’s great shames. A shame we all share.

    I welcome McLeod’s story and every other story raised and (as hackneyed as it sounds) hope we can build a much better tomorrow from what we learn.

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