The AFL’s Crucible

Events in recent weeks have the AFL resembling Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, a play based on the witch-hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.


Puritan Salem disintegrated under the paranoia and hysteria caused by accusations of witchcraft and cavorting with the devil.  Simmering resentments and jealousies resurfaced and villagers settled old scores by condemning neighbours to the gallows.


Written in the early 1950s, as the Cold War was splitting the world in two, Miller’s play brought into context anti-Communist witch-hunts at that time in the US, led by Senator Joe McCarthy.


Unlike the events of Salem and the Cold War, football is not about life and death.  Nor is it, despite what some may say, a religion.  Sadly however, parallels can be drawn.


The AFL community is gripped by fear of being branded racist.  Clubs are paranoid about saying or doing something that may be interpreted as offensive.  Or inversely, saying and doing nothing which may bring similar accusations.  We haven’t quite reached a witch-hunt, but we aren’t far from it.


Melbourne Football Club, with its first year coach and a new season which has started poorly, spent last week, not preparing to travel to Perth to play West Coast Eagles, but in a frenzied attempt to convince the football world it wasn’t racist and doesn’t associate with those who are.


Mark Neeld almost broke down on TV when accused of treating his Indigenous players differently.  Press conferences were held, phone calls made to journalists, and a sponsor was dumped because its owner’s ugly and stupid rants on his personal Facebook page became known to the media.


CEO Cameron Schwab said when announcing the dumping of Energy Watch: ‘We had no other choice’.


Would other clubs have acted the same way?  Absolutely.  Anything less may mean being branded racist.


Matthew Rendell believed his comments about the parentage of Indigenous players were private.  I don’t know in which context they were made; if they were serious or throw-away.  Should they have been made public?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Once they were, Adelaide had no option, he had to go.  What’s the term?  Untenable.  Rendell also made an emotional appearance on TV, pleading with the football world not to condemn him.


Whatever their context, Rendell’s comments were wrong.  Many footballers who cause problems for their clubs aren’t Indigenous.  However, if the AFL suffocates intelligent debate or opposing opinions, it will only attract lanyard wearing ‘yes men’ to its employment.


Jason Mifsud, the AFL’s community engagement officer, has been at the centre of everything.  Like me, he grew up in Warrnambool, yet I’m sure our childhoods were vastly different.  As much as we white fellas offer opinions on the topic of race, they will never know what it’s like to be Indigenous.


From early adulthood, Mifsud has worked with Indigenous people and is held in very high regard in the south west for his service to community.  A few weeks ago, speaking on morning radio about Liam Jurrah, Mifsud put the responsibilties Jurrah faces as an initiated member of the Warlpiri people at Yuendumu, into the context of his own story.  He is torn between life in Melbourne and the AFL bubble and his own mob in Framlingham, near Warrnambool, where he is also an elder, and regularly required to drive home to deal with problems.


I hope Mifsud’s recent actions were motivated by a desire to do good.  That also goes for others involved.  Did Mifsud betray Rendell by going public with his comments?  Did Grant Thomas betray Mifsud through his article about Neeld?  A panicked and petrified Aaron Davey denies he spoke to Mifsud about Neeld.  Mifsud says he did.  As John Proctor, the protagonist in ‘The Crucible’ says, ‘There’s wheels within wheels’.  The best intentions can be lost in ulterior motives.


Arthur Miller’s plays follow the structure of ancient Greek theatre.  The protagonist is a flawed, yet well-meaning man, who commits one regretful act – there’s usually a female involved – which brings about his downfall.  The audience can see his demise approaching, yet is powerless to stop it.  Will we watch more AFL people fall?


Few large organizations do more for Indigenous Australians than the AFL.  But the hysteria, paranoia and self-serving behaviour currently strangling football are as dangerous as racism itself.  There is need for pause and a collective deep breath.  Cool heads and a calm, deliberate approach are needed.  Within the AFL community, black fella, white fella, need to talk before this mess turns into a witch-hunt and all the good work is undone.



  1. Read this play for year ten literature.
    Interesting but accurate comparison Andrew, always looking outside the box with you writing ideas :)
    Its just sad that all these racial issues are even more common, especially in our diverse multicultural country. Its 2012 and we still have racism, can you see this issue being resolved in future?

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    That’s funny, I taught it to yr10s, What a small world!

    Look, on the issue of racism, as long as there are humans, there will be differences. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. As i said, white fellas like me may never understand the issue completely.

  3. John Harms says

    Andrew, I can see the connection.

    I hope the actual essence of the issue is not lost in the discussion of the elements which surround it. eg There was huge hullabaloo about how Nrth Melbourne handled the Majak Daw situation, rather than a focus on the actual situation. The reporting of that (non) story, and the public discussion which followed, served to affirm stereotypes. That was the issue. Far greater sensitivity is required in the reporting of these matters. IN fact if anything some of the reporting of the story tapped in to stereotypes and was exploiting them.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    A good article Andrew although I don’t entirely agree with it. The AFL is justifiably proud of its record on fighting racism. It led all footbal codes and most other sports in bringing in rules to deal with racism. It needed to, football had a terrible reputation for on field racism prior to Nicky Winmar and Michael Long protesting.

    Rendell probably meant well but he should have been made aware of issues before he bacame a recruiting officer. Polis is a racist and facist dickhead who deserved everything that has happened to him in the last few days. He has the freedom of speech to say and believe anything he likes, but football clubs and his former company also have the right to refuse to be associated with his apppalling views.

    One of the sadder things about the current dispute is that the indigenous football community appears to be dividing on geographical grounds. Mifsud, a victorian Koori from Warrnambool has been supported by fellow Koories Adam Goodes from Horsham and Chris Johnson from Jacana. He has been criticised by Dean Rioli, Ronnie Burns, and Andrew McLeod, all of whom, like Aaron Davey are from the Northern Territory. I don’t think this is coincidental but it is terribly unfortunate.

  5. John Harms says

    Dave, I agree that if football (the football community, and especially those who have the power to influence it) is serious about having its prominent position working for good (generally) the AFL, the AFL clubs, and those who are involved in media coverage of football must show better understanding of the issue. That includes Matt Rendell, and anyone else.

    On a separate point, I think your claim re geography and the difference of opinion is speculative – I’m not sure what evidence you have to support it. You may be right but I challenge you to go out and get that confirmation, because given the small numbers concerned it could be completely coincidental.

    That said, you wouldn’t expect uniform views across any community.

  6. Jeff Dowsing says

    As I’ve been led to understand our indigenous people have always been divided by geographical lines, or by ‘nation’. And hence the NT heartlands where the Longs & Riolis are prominent/respected are not on the same page as Mifsud and south western Vic.

    Yes, there are wheels within wheels which makes it even more difficult to progress relationships or resolve issues around melding a white man’s industry with an indiginous’ community’s passionate pastime.

  7. Phil Dimitriadis says


    the Crucible at its heart is also about subverting power from an different or feared ideology. In that case Christian puritanism undermining woman’s voice and mysticism and Communism being a threat to Capitalist puritanism in the Calvinist ethos.

    My point is that indigenous players have pretty much been performers over history of the VFL/AFL. Until Winmar and Long shifted that gaze most fans and pundits were happy to marvel at ‘their’ skills or lament ‘their’ lack of endurance or other such myths under the stereotypical umbrella of indolence and general apathy. Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’?

    While progress is being made I can only think of Polly Farmer and Barry Cable as the only indigenous coaches in the last 50 years of the VFL/AFL. This brings me to the root of the problem which is that indigenous issues will not be understood until indigenous people assume positions of real power, within the game and broader society.

    I use the example of coaches because coaches have a voice that carries weight beyond the playing field. Indigenous voices of AUTHORITY in positions of authority could build bridges to deeper understanding across a myriad of matters. Is the white/European ready to share ‘their’ power? Until they do ignorance, misinformation, myth making and sweeping stereotypical categorizations will prevail.

  8. Andrew Starkie says

    Harmsy, that’s my point – the real issue and the good intentions have been lost in the hysteria and paranoia. The AFL needs to take pause and get back on track. And hear from those in the best position to comment – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who know what they’re on about. Mifsud’s resignation was rejected because his record is strong and Demetriou didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t see the Majak ‘issue’ on racial grounds (it would be interesting to hear what he thought). I saw it more about a bored and idle Herald-Sun football department during what was a very quiet Summer. No Fev, Cuz, St. KIlda school girl. North acted appropriately by attempting to keep it inhouse and when HS got wind of this, they went hard. Front and back pages for two days, for what? The kid didn’t go to a rehab session! You know things are quiet when journos are hanging around Arden St.

    Dave, yes, Polis is a dickhead, but he’s gone. Melbourne acted too quickly and rashly. They did so because they knew a self-righteous and ravenous media would have been banging their door down and accusing them of condoning his racist comments. In a less hysterical time, they may have paused, caught their breath, thought about it over the Easter weekend, or even 24 hours, before making their decision. Schwab said the board decided in five minutes to dump EW. That’s a very expensive five minutes. If Melb had waited, they would have seen Polis get the flick from EW and then wouldn’t have rushed into dropping a sponsor and denying themselves money they desperately need. I think Melb handled the whole week poorly, including the Neeld/Davey issue.

    On the issue of Indigenous players splitting on geographical boundaries, I’m not sure I agree on that, I haven’t read enough about that side issue. But id they are, it wouldn’t surprise. Humans are tribal.

    Phil, you know alot of big words. Are you sure you support Collingwood? I love Miller’s plays. View from a Bridge is my fav.

  9. Jeff Dowsing says

    Careful about those black & white stereotypes Andrew!

  10. Andrew Starkie says

    Ah yes, sorry Jeff. And Phil.

  11. Phil Dimitriadis says

    No worries Andrew, I’m just your token wog, pseudo intellectual Collingwood bogan. Why would I be offended? In shinboner, laymens terms: “Whitefellas will not easily give up positions of power to blackfellas”.
    Until there is a shift, the hysteria and paranoia will get worse.

    BTW Death of a Salesman was my favourite, especially after seeing my old man succumb to dementia in his final years.

  12. Andrew Starkie says

    Phil, more Indigenous players will mean more Indigenous coaches. Eventually.

  13. Andrew,

    if North Melb. beat the Cats this Sunday my only comment will be…..”a fart on you Goody Starkie”

    (We may revisit the Crucible if Mit takes charge)

  14. What is all the blackfella / whitefella hoo haa about? They all play the game and they all love it. The debate about who runs it and who will never give ground is all media driven drivel. The game is being deliberately over complicated by wannabes and has beens adding their expert advice with the intent of wanting the game to be all about them, not the players.

    Just watch the game and enjoy it for what it is and the contribution that the players of all backgrounds give. I don’t give a rats about ethnic or cultural stuff with football players. If they play it they like it. It is a bridge.

    I reckon the next media mongrel who attempts to get the big scoop or tries to hijack a sensitive issue, that they have no capacity to comprehend due to their narrow minded xenophobic egotism, should be taken out the back of the newspaper or tv station lunch room and be given the Ceausescu treatment.

  15. Ed Harcourt says


    If you like, could I pay you and you could come to dinner parties with me?

    What I envisage, is that there will be some discourse throughout the evening that will start us upon a predictable arc. The topic will be some hot potato (You know the usual: boat people, John Howard’s legacy, Global warming, Religion, monogamy, masturbation etc) and when the conversation reaches its most fierce, you will pass me a serviette with a few scribbled sentences which will not only settle the discussion with brilliant timing and wit, but make all the chicks dig me.

    I can pay $5 an hour.


  16. Ed Harcourt says


    Careful. Remember the old gypsy superstition that you take on the soul of those you kill. By that measure, you’d be Eddie McGuire before you could yell “I’m just doing my job!”

  17. Gees you are being hard on me Ed.

    I am only repeating what was passed on to me on a serviette at the last monthly anarchists dinner.

  18. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Why should the bloody abos,wogs,muslims,chinks,poofs and sheilas have a voice? Just assimilate, play the game our way, entertain us and shut the fuck up.

    Phanto, any indiginous people in North West Tassie? I yeah, I forgot they were systematically wiped out. Out of sight out of mind eh?

    Ed, I’m flattered by your offer, but I’m afraid no amount of money can afford the wingmanship that will help you get the chicks. Besides, I’m sure you have no trouble holding your own at the dinner table.

  19. Ed Harcourt says



    I’m holding my own far too often these days.

  20. Ed Harcourt says

    Albeit for me to hijack an important discussion with puerile immaturity…..


    Are the AFL really that big and bad? I listen intently whenever I hear Andrew Demetriou speak and he seems like a pretty reasonable guy who doesn’t strike me as particularly thuggish, rash or simplistic. I challenge the idea that the AFL is gripped by fear – where is the evidence of this? The three strikes illicit drugs policy is a good example (although not race related) of having a reasoned, informed, evidence based policy that is not at all popular among the media, clubs or public, but that is in line with what the experts say is the best way to deal with sensitive personal information. The AFL faced a lot of criticism and held firm on its policy.

    Whether or not I agree with the policy, I don’t buy into the notion that the big bad autocratic AFL run by supreme overlord Demetriou is furiously trying to avoid “looking bad.”

    As far as the two specific main players go (Misfud and Rendell) only one of them was employed by the AFL, and he still is. Demetriou has denied that he insisted Rendell needed to be sacked.

    Personally, I’m sick of hearing the tacit defence of racism. “Political correctness gone mad,” “It’s a witchunt,” “You can’t say anything these days.” Not because I am incapable of understanding nuance and don’t believe that there is any truth in those notions – but because they are secondary to the actual issue – racism. It’s out there, and Australia’s indigenous people are still suffering. I don’t have the answers – but come on! Are the Matt Rendell’s and Ben Polis’ of this world so numerous and powerless that they must constantly be so thoughtfully and passionately defended by smart, capable people?!

  21. I admire your passion and committment to the problem Phil, but don’t swim over your depth if there is an undertow. It was the Europeans who practiced the genocide. Don’t suppose you know any. Everywhere the dear little exploitive colonialistic souls went they wiped out the locals, generally with God on their side as Bob Dylan so succinctly put it.

    Yes I am a northwest coastal Tasmanian but I got her a little to late to enjoy the party. It gives me no pleasure to live in a state where the Govenor offered a shilling a head (documented) and genocide was official policy.

    I think you miss my point. I am possibly more pissed off than you with respect to xenophobia and racism in Australia.There are many stages in many theatres where the politics of exploitation, hate and ignorance are debated. I am just a simple minded Tassy yokel who likes a break from it all every now and again and one of my preferences for that space is footy grounds with the flow on to the next day’s paper. Lets leave it out of footy please. The game is too valuable to be stuffed up by morons with vested interests.

    On many occasions I Have been bashed and battered for being too far to the left by the rednecks and too far to the right by the pinkos. I have spent a lot of time in forums where the middle ground is sought to at least get some pivotal cornerstone for solution. I actually get in amongst it and try to make changes. It can get pretty hard and violent in there but you just have to take the knocks.

    Wood chips are a very devicive issue over here with many people carrying great big chips on their shoulders. It weighs them down and the stress stops them from thinking rationally and makes them grumpy.

  22. John Harms says

    There are no vacuums Phantom. Everything has an effect. Nothing is benign. Nothing is neutral.

    Football, in a nation where 1 in 35 of the citizens is a member of an AFL club has an impact beyond football. I’m no fan of French theorists (have they ever heard of Max Rooke?) but they have provided us with some lenses worth peering through. Do footy commentators and sportswriters consider the imapct of their words as they describe another moment in the game? Do those words have an effect? Do they affirm ideologies which affirm injustices?

    Can an Old Leftie have anything to do with the AFL whatsoever?

    Yes and no.

    The whole system is chockers with contradictions. I agree with The Wrap’s Old Timer (in today’s yarn), but I’m willing to suspend that.

    Where there is genuine meaning and genuine connection and genuine community you will find people exploiting it for every cent.

  23. Dave Nadel says

    I am with Ed. (Harcourt not McGuire) As I said earlier in this thread the AFL has a right to be proud of its response to racism, particularly in comparisom to some other sports. It is right to continue to be confront the problem. I think it is a good thing that all new AFL recruits and rookies get a session with the AFL indigenous officers and experienced players were they are advised on behaviour (and presumably history). It is just a pity that retired players whose careers began befoe 1995 are not given similar experiences. It would have helped Matt Rendell for one.

  24. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Phanto, I know many Europeans as I am one! I guess I get a bit emotional with these issues because I know what its like to be made to feel ashamed of your heritage, language and culture.

    My old man ran a milk bar in Queenstown on Orr Street between 1963-68. He then returned to run another in 1976-78 across from the old Paragon Theatre. He changed his name from Dimitriadis to Demis so he wouldn’t stand out. I was there in the 70s and I have mainly fantastic memories of Queenstown and Tassie in general. I took my own family back for a visit last year and we had a wonderful time.

    My point is that I witnessed my old man get beaten up by a drunk bigot in the shop one night. While he was punching him he let fly with words like ‘why don’t you go back to where you came from you fucken dago wog cunt’ or ‘why don’t ya learn to speak fucken English ya wog bastard’.

    Instead of feeling sorry for my old man I resented the fact that him being a wog made us the different ones or the outsiders. It was feeling I never forgot and when turned 25 I changed my name back to the original as I refused to feel like I was an ‘other’ in the country I grew up and educated myself in.

    Sometimes its hard being almost in a thirdness. When in Greece your an Aussie, when in Australia your Greek, but really your somewhere in between, identity constantly shifting, adapting and transforming with the times and your own perception of who you are.

    It even goes beyond which side of the political divide you are on. Its just a matter of a voice of difference being heard and respected alongside the main ideology. The AFL is making some headway, but I still feel it is too slow. Cricket is in a similar boat. The AFL will not be a realistic reflection of Australian life until we see people from cross cultural backgrounds being the norm rather than the alterity, on and off the field.

  25. Ed Harcourt says

    I was born Edward Ciobaca – my dad was a real estate agent in Geelong in the 80’s and business wasn’t great. He changed our family name from an obscure Romanian name to a bland French one (his then mother in laws maiden name).

    Now I have I have my dead maternal grandmothers maiden name and my mother has remarried. I do like Harcourt though. The only reason I’d go back to Ciobaca is because it is pronounced like “Chewbaca” and I am a Star Wars nut.

    PS: He says his sales tripled.

  26. Phil,

    my father inlaw was in Hitler Youth when my father was being paid to kill Germans as an eighteen year old.

    Yes you hit a nerve with the genocide bit and I reacted. I hate taking the double wammy; feeling guilty about it and being associated with it.

    My neighbour is of Austrian heritage and worked in the Queenstown mines. He told me some stories. Hard school down there. I can’t understand how a migrant was taking the job of a piss head who was always in the pub and didn’t want to work anyway.

    We have much in common.

    JTH, yes old lefties, rednecks, gays and calthumpians can have something to do with footy. Over in the outer where the only valid demarcation point is the team you barack for.

    My point always was / is that there are too many red herrings put forward in actual footy, and analysis, commentry. We need to take a deep breath and look at simply as a couple of mad mobs chasing a bit of leather around for a few hours ov a Satd’y or any uvver day of the week that them interfer’n bastards would like it to be wiv anuvver cuppla mad mobs scream’n from ova tha fence.

    Can’t we have a break from all the other drivel for a little while?

    (Those dear froggies will probably know of Max Rooke in a while and throw the full force of their appelation laws at him when he makes a vintage that is better than theirs. ‘Au secours, ces’t bon, mais ce n’est pas sssssgggampaaigne”)

  27. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Ed and Phanto, appreciate the honesty. Maybe we do have more in common than we think. Without our dialogue, we may not have realised this. Ain’t that what real communication is all about?

  28. A fart on you Goody Starkie. (Well done – win’em and wear’em)

  29. Year 12 Mercy Student says

    Sir. You taught this to your Year 11 English Class last year! (:
    You were the most excellent english teacher! #Bestteacheratmercy
    We all miss you!

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