Some thoughts on issues surrounding Indigenous players in the AFL

The news came to me at 4.00 on Monday afternoon that Liam Jurrah had left the Melbourne Demons. It seemed to be an inevitability since the beginning of the season when it was announced that he was “being held in police custody in an Alice Springs jail following his alleged involvement in a machete attack.” Liam Jurrah who it seemed was destined to follow in the footsteps of Adam Goodes and Andrew Macleod. He was oozing with excitement factor and was a leader in his own community. Instead he has followed in the footsteps of Andrew Lovett embroiled in court proceedings whilst trying to resuscitate his football career.

It is easy to forget now a year on but Jurrah had a basically untarnished record. When the news was broken in March regardless of the outcome of the case Jurrah’s life was taken down a completely different path. Liam Jurrah played the solitary game this season, as he was up north sorting out his own demons. It did not came as a surprise when it was announced yesterday that Jurrah would leave the Demons. Jurrah is not the only Indigenous player to have left a club this season, Kel Lawrence an Indigenous player on the rookie list for Melbourne also left the club in the past few weeks. As the game increasingly becomes more professional and elite, the number of Indigenous players leaving AFL clubs has also increased. The number of Aboriginal players on AFL lists has dropped this year from 85 in the previous two seasons, to 80 for 2012. Meanwhile 20 Indigenous players left club primary lists at the end of 2011, up from 17 in 2010. This is despite the increased attention and awareness regarding this issue.

The case of Liam Jurrah is inextricably implicated with the legal system so in that regard it is a special case but it is not a special case in the context of young Indigenous men leaving AFL clubs. This is a problem that has riddled clubs for years. It is a problem that a younger me focused on when the cult hero Relton Roberts left the Richmond Football Club half way through the 2010 season. Yes, Jurrah it seems would be a far more talented player than Roberts and so it seems it at this point with keen interest from the Port Adelaide Football Club that Jurrah will be able to reignite his career unlike Roberts. However on face value the similarities of these two cases and many others of the same ilk is that young men who one could only assume have focused their whole lives on the goal of making the AFL, once in it are willing to walk away from this dream. It begs the question why? Underneath the simplicity of this question is the complexity of the issue. I don’t have the answers, but as I had more time on my hands in 2010 I had the time to do a bit of research into the curious case of Relton Roberts. Below is an excerpt:

Do you remember Relton Roberts? The lightning quick small forward who donned the number 50 for two matches for the Richmond Football Club. Roberts was the antithesis of the clean cut footballer that every coach desires. Roberts achieved cult status before his debut match. Known for his jumper number of 50, extremely rare within a culture that suggests the better a player is the lower his number, his many supporters embraced this. After two matches early in the season, in July Roberts was instructed to return to his community Ngukkur, Roper River Region to sort out personal issues. “I wanted to play AFL footy but I found it really hard with my family up here and me down there in Melbourne.” Once Roberts had seemingly settled his personal issues, I’m told the club made no attempt to make contact with him or even to check up on his progress. Roberts’s AFL career, that virtually every young boy in Australia dreams about had imploded in simply a matter of months. Within this puzzle one question remains ‘What went wrong?’

 

Roberts’s dubious match preparation which included reportedly breaking a night-time curfew and consuming a hamburger before a VFL match, proved to be instrumental in his sacking from the Richmond Football Club. These suggest a lack of professional preparation or awareness. Roberts is a player who has lived in Ngukurr, N.T (a remote community) for most of his life, with a culture and preparation for football that is vastly different to the structured preparation that is instilled in many young players through programs such as the TAC Cup and AIS-AFL Academy. Without many of these seemingly essential processes in place for young aspiring players from remote communities, it is an extremely difficult task for these players to adjust to the professional structure of an AFL Club. Combine the stresses from these professional clubs with the temptations that exist within a big city and it is little wonder that these young kids struggle to adapt to their lifestyle.

 

It is evidently very difficult for young players who come from remote communities to adjust to a new lifestyle in Melbourne but is this due to lack of support from their new AFL clubs? Within many Indigenous communities the AFL is attempting to implement several programs to assist in the development of young Indigenous footballers. These include; QANTAS AFL Kickstart, Flying Boomerangs, Indigenous Academies, AFL Ambassadors for Life Mentoring Program, AFL Club Community Fostership Program.

In the words of Relton Roberts “If I can do it, everyone can, and that includes a lot of young Territory boys who want to play AFL footy and have dreamed about it for a long time. My advice is don’t just dream – grab it with both your hands and give it your best shot without any distractions.” This message can be universalized but it becomes a matter of finding a way in which the most talented players are able to make their dream a reality –  not just the most talented players that live in the cities.

It will take time to see if the gamble of GWS and Gold Coast will pay off. However with recent expansions Demetriou has indefinitely ruled out any further expansions for the time being. Initially the traditionalist was opposed to the expansions to these areas but it does seem to be doing some good things for Footy so it is not all bad. In a radical move if the AFL was to make an expansion team based out of the Northern Territory perhaps it could help to resolve the issue that Jurrah and Roberts fell victim to. Relton Roberts stated that the reason behind his abrupt departure from the AFL was that he, “found it really hard with my family up here and me down there in Melbourne.” Whilst Ned Guy speaking on behalf of Liam Jurrah stated that, “Before footy, before anything else, this is about Liam and his wellbeing and happiness. That will come with him being with his family. This is nothing to do with football. This is about him and his happiness.” For a young player who has been picked up through the TAC cup system by a Melbourne club and grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne he would most likely still be living at home at the beginning of his career or still living near home so would be able to go to home whenever need be. Even for players who came from a small town the move to the big city is incomparable to the move from a small Indigenous community to a the big city usually on the other side of the country.

Relton Roberts said that he, “found it really hard with my family up here and me down there in Melbourne.”  Why not bring an AFL club to home? or as near to home as possible. Immediately this would eliminate the phenomenon of homesickness that seems to be the cause of many players leaving the fishbowl of Melbourne and leaving their football dreams in favour of returning home. Just as expanding into the new markets of Western Sydney and Gold Coast gave these previously untapped areas of Australia something that they could call their own. This would give Indigenous communities across the country something that they could call their own. Instead of being proud of individual players, communites could be proud of a collective team, that is their own. It would make what is the relatively accessible for young men of the city but seems to be increasingly inaccessible for Indigenous men more accessible.

The notion of a team based out of the North- Darwin would make the most sense- may seem to be a notion that would foster a form of segregation. But is an association that has a culture which according to  former Port Adelaide star Daniel Motlop would  Teams would “rather pick a non-indigenous player than an indigenous player because of his background even if he’s a better player or a better performer at TAC Cup level or under-18s. It’s always going to be there, I think. I don’t know how you’re going to stop that.” It may not solve all problems but having a team based near what is home for many Indigenous with an Indigenous focus could make a huge difference in “stopping that.” The number of Indigenous players on AFL lists has dropped from 85 to 80 and could continue to drop in the foreseeable future. This is not because of a decline in Indigenous players rather it is due to a problem that is inherent within the current culture of the AFL

It is no longer acceptable for the AFL to continue to bury its head in the sand. It is time for real action.

 

About Will Brussen

Will Brussen is a Tiger, he loves the Richmond Tigers and he has suffered. He finds solace in the fact that he did not choose the Tigers, they chose him. He finds comfort in watching replays of the 1980 grand final, on repeat. He finds joy in singing the club song, whenever he wants. He believes that supporting the Richmond Football Club has taught him many life lessons.

Comments

  1. Peter Schumacher says:

    This is very thought provoking article covering a very complex subject.

    I like the idea of a team based out of Darwin, just imagine a team of a whole lot of indigenous stars. Yes is could be seen as a segregation but surely whilst such might make up the majority given their origins there would be places for players of any creed or culture if they were good enough.

    Meanwhile, whilst absolutely admitting that I am over simplifying a very complicated set of issues, individuals are responsible for their own actions and have to wear the consequences that follow.

  2. Yes, individuals need to be responsible for their actions. It is not just the Indigenous who are prone to stupid behavior it is all players.

    That was not the focus but the support that Indigenous players have once moved to the big city most pertinently for the most part a lack of family support for boys who typically come from a culture and community where family is the most important thing and could be seen to play a bigger part in their life than what is the norm for families in the city. I’m not an expert but from where I’m sitting this seems to be a key reason why there is a problem regarding Indigenous players in the AFL.

    In regards to the team I think that Northern Territory Thunder is an excellent model and although it seems to be a team with an Indigenous focus it compromises roughly 60% Indigenous players but also has many non-Indigenous players in the team as well. It is a very successful club and seems to work quite well.

    I think also for young non-Indigenous players playing in an Indigenous focused team would be a very enriching experience and an adventure. As a young non-Indigenous I’ve spent some time in an Indigenous community and it was a great and rewarding experience that I was able to learn a lot from. Relationships that could be formed on both parts in such an environment would be mulch-beneficial.

    As a country we have made great steps towards equality for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians but there is still plenty more to be done if we are to ‘Close the Gap’. Sport and specifically the AFL have mad great progress in this regard with the Long Walk initiative and Indigenous Round as well as a plethora of programs such as; QANTAS AFL Kickstart, Flying Boomerangs, Indigenous Academies, AFL Ambassadors for Life Mentoring Program, AFL Club Community Fostership Program. Despite this there is still a way to go.

    I think I real problem has been raised that no amount of money would be able to solve. For a long time the AFL has taken young men away from their communities where many of them have been leaders. Leaving a void in some respects, and creating a very difficult situation for many of these men. Why not bring the AFL to these communities?

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