Thinking outside the oval

by Peter Baulderstone

Football (and that’s a broader family than AFL) has lost two of its broadest thinkers and most compassionate administrators – one to cancer, and the other to political correctness.  One loss cannot be remedied, but the other should be.

We all get lost in the adoration and fandom of professional sport, and the AFL presents this engaging spectacle better than most.  But at its core professional sport is inherently about watching young men develop before our eyes – as athletes; footballers and people.  The Jurrah/Rendell/racial profiling story is all of a jumble because each of the competing sub-plots casts a light on a different surface of a large complex issue.  The discussion focuses on indigenous footballers, because the problems are more prevalent there.  They are the more visible tip of a much larger iceberg.

I get passionate about this, because most of us only see the ‘perfectly formed jewel’ of the AFL footballer of a weekend.  Even then we are quick to dismiss them and their failings (‘too slow’; ‘can’t kick’; ‘no awareness’; ‘waste of space’) – I’ve used them all on our own players.  But how many fall by the wayside seeking that level?  How many achieve it but are haunted by the pressure to maintain that standard, and struggle to live with the attention and expectations of ‘life in the AFL gold fish bowl’?

Some would dismiss this as wimpy apology for kids who got given the world and ‘couldn’t stick it’.  But opportunity and expectation are a mixed blessing.  My direct experience is limited but left a powerful imprint.  One was a country boy from a difficult family background, who succumbed to the punt and a deeply introverted off-field personality after a couple of seasons in the AFL system.  Another from a good family had perfectionist traits that drove him into a full-blown eating disorder that was at least triggered by beep tests and a search for elusive leg speed.  Off the playing field, I know from my own life experience that being thrust into the limelight of what others perceives as success and opportunity, can be deeply troubling if you don’t have the emotional awareness to understand that you can’t ‘be all things to everyone’.

I found Matt Rendell’s appearance on ‘Footy Classified’ last night very moving.  It was obvious that this was a ‘straight shooter’ who passionately wanted every young man he recruits to AFL to have the best chance of success.  For the club that employs him, but above all for the young man himself.  And if that success is not achieved on the field, then at least to have equipped him with some skills of discipline, striving, camaraderie and teamwork that equips him for his broader life.  He does not want them to be ‘chewed up and spat out’ by the professional sport sausage machine, as they transition from suburban star to professional aspirant – and from boy to man.

Rendell said two things that particularly made me take notice.  First he used the word ‘attrition’ to describe the drop-out rate of young talent from AFL lists.  Some turnover is inevitable in a capped system, but he seemed to imply two things – that these losses were not for football or physical reasons.  And also that indigenous players were disproportionately represented in the drop-out numbers.

The second was that in his searching for remedies he latched onto the Cyril Rioli example of moving to a city/school/footballing environment at a younger age, so that the culture shock was less acute than trying to make all the adjustments at draft age.  In describing Rioli’s experience he echoed Che Cockatoo-Collins concept from the Manning Clark Institute’s “Force for Good” seminar (reproduced by John Harms on the website) of coaching the family to support the young man to persist when the going gets tough.

It made me remember the aphorism that “in a healthy family the goal of the family is the growth of its individual members; in an unhealthy family the goal of the individuals is the welfare of the family.”  These are subtle concepts of enmeshment and separation that every family and young person go through to some extent.  But the draftee’s leap into professional sport with its ruthless disciplines and competitiveness, must be much more alien for those from an indigenous background with its culture of extended family and relaxed enjoyment.

“Family reasons” are the catch-all euphemism for disappearing politicians and indigenous sportsmen.  In the indigenous case the reasons are genuinely family-related, but the ties and concept of family are much broader than for most of us.  It would be a strong mother with a broad awareness, who told a pining adolescent “you stay and work and make us proud” as cited in both the Rioli and Cockatoo-Collins examples.

But it also takes a far-sighted, lateral thinking football club that extends its responsibilities to ‘coaching’ families beyond the routine niceties.  And also having all the coaching and development staff aware of the need to make allowances for a likely gradual and unsettled transition to professional sporting life.  Rendell seemed to imply that his own club had often struggled to live up to these ideals, despite good intentions.  It just got ‘too hard’ in too many cases.  I think he was being honest in describing failings that are widespread but unspoken.

Again I want to stress that these are not indigenous problems.  The earlier personal examples I cited all involved young white men, and in only one were the problems conventionally foreseeable.  But the prevalence and complexity of the transition problems must be greater for those from outside the cultural mainstream.

So what was Matt Rendell’s crime for which he has been effectively sacked?  In an informal discussion with someone both friend and official (which blurred boundaries), Rendell was seemingly passionate about his concerns over what he perceived was a disproportionate attrition rate among young indigenous players.  He was searching for responses, and had thought enough about it to suggest that the ‘Rioli option’ be offered to a large cohort of young indigenous footballers.

And he was so concerned that something be done urgently that he did what we have all been guilty of.  He ‘drew a long bow’.  He ‘raised the stakes’.  He made his case passionately by highlighting a what if scenario of how things might be if urgent action were not taken.

He said that it would get to a situation where the attrition rate for non-football/physical reasons was too high.  Clubs would take a utilitarian cost/benefit approach that effectively discriminated against indigenous recruits “unless they had a white parent.”  I suggest that in informal discussions we all talk in ways that enhance the understanding of our viewpoint.  We aren’t making a legalistic or academic listing of all the potential criteria for identifying stability or ‘coachability’.  It is only once we have reached some consensus about approach and direction, that we start to work out the detail.

If Rendell were really seeking to promote a racist viewpoint, why was the main point of his argument to get the adoption of a ‘positive discrimination’ policy that he thought would give indigenous players the best chance of success?

In a broader sense this highlights for me the distinction between symbolic reconciliation and practical reconciliation.  Of course these two concepts can co-exist, they are not mutually exclusive.  However their advocates seem to split into different world and political views.

To me the symbolic reconciliation view about apologies, treaties, invasion recognition and dialogue is redolent of the ‘feel good’ welfarism that has blighted indigenous policy for decades.  I am firmly in the Noel Pearson camp of opportunity and self worth – be it in football, employment or education.  Make the apologies by all means.  Symbolism can be important.

But symbolism can rapidly become tokenism.  And tokenism needs scapegoats as a substitute for real achievement.  In my view that is where the ‘indigenous debate’ has now arrived in AFL policy.  We have properly rid the ground and the terraces of overt racial abuse.  This leaves the AFL stuck in a time warp that thinks ‘big brother’ edicts are more important than overcoming structural and societal obstacles to indigenous player development.

My hope would be that in taking a broader view about player development and welfare than on-field success and financial rewards, AFL clubs give all recruits the best chance of ongoing life success.  This is much more than an indigenous issue.

Phil D complimented my ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ piece, but labeled it satire.  I wrote it as my honest ‘best guess’ scenario for how a good man could come to be labeled racist.  Or at least have his words labeled as racist.  It is beyond me how any witness could recollect a specific statement from a general conversation two months ago.  If it were so heinous why was did it take so long to surface, except that recent events saw it re-interpreted (more likely ‘lost in translation’).  Taking the statement in isolation, completely removed from context and intent, is a travesty in defining meaning.

The only part that was meant to be satirical was the concluding AFL discussion suggesting how they came to read that meaning into the words, and hence impugn the man.  After the revelations of the last few days I don’t think any of it was satire.

And that is the last distinction that I want to make.  I don’t think anyone (not even the AFL) comes to the indigenous/racism debate with bad intent.  We just sometimes confuse activity with achievement.  Outlawing behaviors and people only fosters greater furtive activity underground.

Club President on Footy Classified in 2015: “Our club has not drafted any indigenous players in the last three years because they did not fit with our (commercial in confidence) rigorous performance and needs assessment criteria.  All applicants will be considered for future vacancies.”

“Most men are not wicked……they are sleep-walkers, not evil-doers”  (Franz Kafka).


  1. Peter

    Marvellous piece. Sensistive, well understood and balanced. There’s been a lot of unnecessary comemnt on this issue, which has taken us away from an issue of Australian society and youth issues beyond football, so thank you for a well written and considered piece.

    For mine:

    * Rendell coudl not have operated within the footbal industry for the last how many years and recruited all over Australia if he had any racist tendencies. I am not naive enough to think that there aren’t racists in every line of work and in every demographic and part of this country. However, in a business (and I use the words industry and business deliberately) football has a higher number of indigenous participants than any business or line of work I have been in, so you simply couldnt have those views and be sucessful or long standing.
    * Andy D’s comments were completely out of line. For the CEO of an organisation to make a pre-emptive statement that indicates a man must be sacked from his position, based on one person’s version of a story, when that person works for another company, that relies on AFL support, shows an ignorance of good coprorate management and basic employment law. His public perception that everyone who disagrees with his firm views of football is mad, laughable or misguided is not the attitide of a good leader.
    * Rendell’s treatement will further drive underground or off the table any good considered debate by clubs on what is a serious issues, for fear of retribution or labelling. For that, the stiflying of comment is a travesty.
    * Finally, comments about race are not racist. You rightly point to issues with players above that weren’t race related. We should be able to make a comment about indigenous issues and problems without being called racist. I have limited knoweldge of the major issues facing indigenous Australians, so I would be prepared to be called ignorant if I did enter that arena. However, I would challenge any claim that a comment I made about indigenous issues was racist purely by raising the subject.
    Thanks again for a well written piece Peter.


  2. Peter, thank you for a very thoughtful piece. My attitude towards this aspect of footy life is that although I have very limited experience and understanding, I am nonetheless passionate about it, and would like to have an informed viewpoint. If you would be kind enough to indulge me in good spirit, I would be appreciative.

    I think most of what you say sounds very reasonable, I agree with the general sentiment that Matt Rendell is probably not a “racist.” I do not believe that his comments (it’s worth pointing out that their content is in dispute) warranted sacking, and I am more than willing to listen to what he meant and allow him the space to develop his point of view. Furthermore, it is pretty clear that he has a great deal of experience with working with indigenous communities, and I hope he gets picked up by another club soon (or maybe even the AFL.)

    The point in this issue where I started to become engaged, was where I read a comment reposted by Daniel Harford on Twitter (for those uninitiated: not his own direct words, but a tweet repeated and in this case endorsed by him.) If you would indulge me, I’d like to share it here:

    Harf Time ? @HarfTimeSEN:
    Amen RT “@kangas18: @HarfTimeSEN Harf, seems a very good man’s been burnt for sloppy language! Sometimes the PC police target wrong person.”

    I have a problem with the sentiment that these controversies are caused by political correctness and I dispute the idea that Matt Rendell is a victim. I engaged with Harford, and not because I want to see Rendell targeted:

    Eddie H ? @edrh
    [email protected] how do you come to the conclusion that it’s sloppy language & what would’ve been a better choice of words?

    Harf Time ? @HarfTimeSEN
    @edrh So you believe he’s a racist?

    Harf Time ? @HarfTimeSEN
    @edrh My read: the way he told it I took it as clearly being dramatic for effect, re the urgency of the issue at hand. #areyouaPCpoliceman?

    As I have stated, I don’t think Matt Rendell is a racist, but nor I do think that it is that relevant. To mix a well known phrase: You are only as racist as your last racist comment.
    Peter, in direct relation to what you have written above:

    “I wrote it as my honest ‘best guess’ scenario for how a good man could come to be labeled racist. Or at least have his words labeled as racist. It is beyond me how any witness could recollect a specific statement from a general conversation two months ago. If it were so heinous why was did it take so long to surface, except that recent events saw it re-interpreted (more likely ‘lost in translation’). Taking the statement in isolation, completely removed from context and intent, is a travesty in defining meaning.”

    Whether it is fair or not, Rendell’s comments found their way into a dangerous narrative on indigenous players, and not that I endorse his sacking, but I believe they are then fair game. Why? Comments, ideas & notions like his can become threads that legitimise bigotry for those willing. I’m sure we’ve all heard comments at the pub or at the footy, and it goes something like:

    “Yeah but you know he’s got a point.”

    This is where the racism lies, and it is insidious, enshrined and protected. By making political correctness a dirty word, we have given these privately held views oxygen, and reasoned, patient discourse is made to look taboo. No doubt there are times where “political correctness” simply becomes a tool for…I don’t know, it’s almost fetishism – like the recent chastisement of Bernie Vince. No one it seems was actually offended or harmed in that instance, and I believe that is clear cut example of where PCness thrives.

    Harf Time ? @HarfTimeSEN
    @edrh P.S. Don’t deny it was a silly line, but with absolutely no intent to offend, isn’t it just a poor option?

    Eddie H ? @edrh
    @HarfTimeSEN agree with all of the above. Just to be clear: unlike the BVince “saga” (& others) I don’t think this one is about being “PC”

    Harf Time ? @HarfTimeSEN
    @edrh People want to be outraged these days because they think they should. #thatisPCgonemad

    Eddie H ? @edrh
    @HarfTimeSEN maybe in general terms but specifically in regards to Matt Rendell – I disagree that he is a victim of political correctness.

    Peter, I am not outraged by Matt Rendell, but I dispute that this just another case of political correctness gone mad. Rendell made a comment that alluded to a stereotype, and that was made public.

    ” Outlawing behaviors and people only fosters greater furtive activity underground.”

    Outlawing: no, wholly condemn: yes. The latter part of that statement is (and great wording by the way) what I am really interested in here, and I believe that the hidden racist attitudes are far more important than trying to discern what Matt Rendell did or didn’t mean to say. We cannot condemn what people secretly think, but we should be able to say that comments like Rendell’s, comments which give bigotry a wink and a nod, are not ok.
    I’d like to share a quote I found on the subject:
    “It really worries me that 84% of this audience agrees with that statement, because the kind of people that say “political correctness gone mad” are usually using that phrase as a kind of cover action to attack minorities or people that they disagree with. I’m of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” and he drove me around saying, “this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live.” And I remember being at school in the early 80s and my teacher, when he read the register, instead of saying the name of the one asian boy in the class, he would say, “is the black spot in,” right? And all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn’t decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made. It’s a complete lie that allows the right, which basically controls media now, and national politics, to make people on the left who are concerned about the way people are represented look like killjoys. And I’m sick, I’m really sick — 84% of you in this room that have agreed with this phrase, you’re like those people who turn around and go, “you know who the most oppressed minorities in Britain are? White, middle-class men.” You’re a bunch of idiots.”
    Stewart Lee

    Note: I read this morning that Jason Misfud has elaborated more about the conversation in question, and that there were suggestions that Rendell homogenised those of African and indigeounous Australian heritage. Something along the lines of telling Misfud that Africans were “Your people.” I’m more inclined to think that there is more to Rendell’s attitude than he would have us, in good faith, believe.

  3. Peter – terrific piece. Very thoughtful and well considered. Indigenous footballers must be considered men first and indigenous second, otherwise differences are forever highlighted and perpetuated. The recent demise of Jimmy Stynes has highlighted how he was considered a man first and Irish second.

    I’m a big fan of Noel Pearson.

  4. Great piece Peter.

    My, how the persona of Aussie Rules has changed in the past 20-odd years. It has gone from a “boys will be boys” (with “boys” being predominantly whites Aussies outside of the NT) to being a standard-bearer for social justice. I wonder if that’s a reflection of how the AFL has performed, or of how much Australians in general have changed.

    Did anyone see Insight last night?

  5. Ben Footner says

    Makes for wonderful reading Peter. You’ve articulated things beautifully, the best piece I’ve read on this issue by far and away.

  6. Andrew Weiss says

    Great piece Pete. It was interesting to hear Robert Walls speaking to Graham Cornes and Steven Rowe the other week on their sports show on 5AA. Wallsy suggested that in the future recruiters may be more likely to recruit footballers that had come from private schools rather than public schools as thet may be better with coping with the so called intellegence and AFL footballer needs with stratgies and analysis that occurs in this day and age. Wonder what the AFL would do if a recuiter admitted to this. Surely that would be inequality as well.

  7. Skip of Skipton says

    Taking a young man who has grown up in the tropics/outback etc, and dropping them into a massive concrete jungle, multi-culti rat-race like Melbourne is going to cause culture shock. Then take into account the cold weather of which they would not have experienced. Then consider the 24/7 rigid discipline/training and scrutinised life they have to endure. They might get into trouble for eating a hamburger before a VFL match one day, and who could blame them for wanting to pack it in?

  8. Peter, superb work, and a great read. Not only the best piece I’ve read on this issue, but probably the best piece I’ve read on anything this year.

    I recorded the Rendell Footy Classified segment and only just watched it tonight. I share your sentiments, and emphathised with the guy. He knows how the footy industry picks up and spits out people, how tough it is on those people, and how Aboriginal players unfortunately get disproportionately represented in that – and he wanted to do something about it. He should be earning universal admiraiton for that.

    The most distrubing thing was the conduct of some of the so-called “journalists” on the show, particularly Wilson but also to some extent Lyon (merely giving your own opinion all the time isn’t really jounralism in my book). They were each clearly committed to doing Demetriou’s bidding, serving a mix of (i) being prosecutors on Rendell, and (ii) covering up the underlying substance of the issue. I don;t know why they thought Rendell was coming on their show, because they clearly ignored every word he said. It only added to my sense of the injustice that a good man had tried to do something to help the disadvantaged, and the establishment (incuding the media) had decided to cut him down.

  9. Tony Robb says

    Good one Peter Complex issue made more confusing by the he said, I said, manner of reporting. However your thoughts in regard the wider issues are well considered and with merit. Great stuff

  10. Brandon Erceg says

    That was a great piece uncle Peter. I agree ith your comments about Matt Rendell and it was definitely a comment that was taken way out of context and blown up to make Rendell sound like a racist, and I think Adelaide and he AFL have lost an important person in the ‘industry’.
    Rendell is I think definitely not a racist, especially after watching the segment on footy classified.

    I believe this issue is hardly to do with being indigenous and like you said that’s just the tip of the iceberg or scratching the surface. I think Rendell meant this nd it’s always benn my belief that it doesn’t matter whether your indigenous or not, every young recruit can have their problems/issues and should be dealt with the same and I agree with you in that I think it’s just because of how much the indigenous culture and indigenous players are focused on and because of their cultural diversity that everyone seems to think and distinguish indigenous recruits and young indigenous players as different and therefore should be treated so much differently when a white male can have just the same issue or their own issue which would also need to be looked at which is what Rendell was pointing out when he was talking about the attrition rate.

    I think because indigenous people have a different culture and are bought up differently in some ways they perhaps have more of an attrition rate and Rendell was only pointing this out, but this isn’t to say he’s racist because as you said he was just trying to highlight his point.

    Regardless of being indigenous or non-indigenous, young players have their problems and all individuals are bought up differently in different cultures and for Rendell to be moved on for highlighting a point on a topic he is clearly passionate about and for it to be taken out of context to such an extent was unnecessary and a loss to Adelaide nd the AFL.

    That was a really thought out piece nd really enjoyed it uncle Peter, an awesome rea


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