What happened next and what didn’t: Victorian Aboriginal involvement in Australian football in the 21st century


Having researched and written Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, I began to wonder whether my unspoken assumption that the people whose lives I had researched were the forerunners of a much more enlightened period in which the over-representation of their successors in the game today had been secured.[1] My optimistic conclusion was shattered by Jessica Coyle when she pointed out that Victorian Aboriginal people remained virtually absent from the game at the highest level today.[2] If it were not for the Noongar, the Tiwi Islanders and Indigenous people from the Northern Territory there would be a very different story to be told about Indigenous representation in the Australian Football League today. Her powerful argument was that Indigenous Victorians remained invisible to the Victorian clubs who still make up the majority in the AFL—10 of the 18 clubs taking part. Nine of them are based in Melbourne. Why so few Victorians made it to the top level seemed worth further investigation as there were structural reasons as well as perceptions involved.


In 2019 the AFL Players Association updated its map of the stated heritage of the 84 male and 13 female Indigenous players currently in the two competitions. Only 3 Victorians are included.



By contrast there 13 Noongar, 11 Balardong and 10 Wajuk people from Western Australia, plus smaller numbers from other heritage groups.[3]


According to AFL data, of the around 400 Indigenous players who have been recruited to and played for VFL and AFL clubs since Joe Johnson in 1906, only about 40 or 10 per cent have a Victorian background and 20 of those have been recruited since the start of the 21st century.



Number of Victorian Indigenous players per decade recruited to the Victorian Football League and the Australian Football League since the 19th century


Decade            Number of Indigenous players

Prior to 1900   0*

1900–9            1#

1910–19          0

1920–29          1

1930–39          2

1940–49          2

1950–59          2

1960–69          2

1970–79          2

1980–89          2

1990–99          6

2000–09          6

2010–19          14


Source: Data compiled by AFL statistician Col Hutchinson and used with his permission.


*        Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin played a single game for Geelong in 1872.


#        Ian Clark has produced evidence that suggests Joe Johnson was born to a West Indian father and an Australian woman whose parents were from the United Kingdom. The conferring of Aboriginality on Joe Johnson may not be sustainable. https://www.ancestry.com.au/family-tree/person/tree/56369233/person/312004546173/facts


There are, of course, problems with the data. Who is a Victorian? The Goodes brothers, Adam and Brett, played at Horsham as juniors, switching from soccer to football while they were teenagers. Adam was recruited from North Ballarat and Brett from the Northern Territory, originally as Indigenous Programs Manager for the Western Bulldogs, though their country is in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Are they Victorians or are they not?[4] The same question might be raised about a number of current and past players.


In the last decade one of the major changes in the recruiting of new players has been the concentration of the AFL draft on products of the Australian private schools.[5] Over a quarter of the players drafted in 2017 came from the 11 Associated Public Schools. Several of these schools have tiny numbers of Indigenous students under various scholarship and other arrangements. Jake Niall writes, ‘“Geelong Grammar’s got a bigger salary cap than Collingwood,” quipped one AFL official, explaining how so much talent had been herded into the boarding houses and immaculate fields.


Schools now compete for places in the draft because of the promotional value of high draft picks as well as success on the field in APS competitions. The process has reverted to a pattern which was common in the 19th century when the leading schools supplied many of the players to football clubs. As the game grew to become a spectator sport recruiting broadened to include working class talent, though the old school tie never quite disappeared. When coaching Geelong, Tom Hafey got exasperated with his recruiting manager, Bill McMaster, extolling the virtues and character of the latest potential recruit from Western District squattocracy via Geelong Grammar and Geelong College. ‘Bring me someone with a bit of mongrel!’ the coach pleaded. Now recruitment from the leading private schools is becoming more and more evident once again. Jake Niall in a recent article in the Age dates the change to the turn of the twentieth century.


‘An arms race ensued. Scotch pioneered scholarships to Indigenous kids from the Northern Territory, a system that Ogilvie called “the Cyril Rioli scholarship” after the Hawthorn virtuoso who came to Scotch from Tiwi Islands. Melbourne Grammar followed suit’. … Grammar’s “Marn Grook club” was formed by old boys and parents to bolster footy, and, at Sheahan’s behest the likes of Xavier Ellis, a subsequent Hawthorn player, arrived at the school.


Perhaps the schools are deliberately or accidentally increasing the anti-Victorian bias in the name of Indigenous advancement. They may well be more interested in the academic progress of these students than their sporting prowess. It may well be in the interests of the Indigenous students too that they focus on a scholastic and subsequent employment career in areas other than sport, but there may also be structural barriers to their achievement of a sporting and later career success through recruitment to the AFL.


But there are other structural reasons why Indigenous players are less likely to be selected and drafted. Recruiting managers for clubs and their staff simply do not have the time and capacity to watch every player taking part in football in Victoria, far less Australia as whole. So they concentrate on youngsters who have already been selected for teams in the AFL Under–18 competition and the TAC Cup. They will also run their rule over players in teams playing in the VFL and the VFA. So a youngster playing above his age group for a regional or rural team in country Victoria will only get on their radar if he has managed to attract the attention of the local feeder club, say North Ballarat for youngsters from the Western District around Heywood, which is close to Lake Condah where Indigenous lads were playing Australian football in the 19th century. This bias against country Victorian players would apply to non-Indigenous youngsters as well, of course.



How the AFL wants it to appear


Meanwhile the AFL wants to spruik its Indigenous credentials at every opportunity. It has much to be proud of since it began to address the needs of Indigenous footballers including the appointment of Tanya Hosch, an Indigenous person, as Head of Diversity with a position on the AFL Commission and other senior members of staff with a role in research and support of players. But it cannot resist overegging the pudding. Everything is done to give an impression of much greater commitment to diversity and Indigenous involvement in the game than the evidence warrants. A good example is the 2019 AFL Draft booklet.[6]


The front cover has Collingwood and Brisbane Lions players apparently as non-white athletes, while Carlton and North Melbourne are prima facia white.


Lachie Neal, at the front, was born in Victoria according to one source, but moved to South Australia when he was very young and played locally and then with Glenelg in Adelaide, before being drafted by Fremantle Dockers in 2011.[7] Isaac Quaynor of Collingwood is of African descent and grew up in Melbourne playing with Bulleen and Oakleigh Under-18s before being drafted in 2018.


Though Indigenous people are over-represented in AFL football as a whole this is hardly an accurate representation of the relativities of the nominations and of the players drafted.


Cover of 2019 AFL Draft booklet.


Victorian clubs


Several of the Victorian clubs have developed programs to provide opportunities for young Indigenous players, but it is not clear if they are aware of the bias against Aboriginal Victorians and if they have any strategies in place to deal with it. Recruiting officers to whom I have spoken, on condition of anonymity, have said that they simply look for the best talent with no consideration of their heritage. Whether positive bias or quotas are necessary to change the situation is an interesting question. The situation, as we have seen, is not new.



Historical bias against Victorian Aboriginal people


Some Indigenous Victorians and Tasmanians believe that there is a long-standing bias against their people from the south. Reflecting on Geoff Clarke’s appointment as the chair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Gary Foley is quoted as saying, , ‘At first I was surprised he got the chair because of the long historical bias towards people from the north, the so-called real blackfellas …’[8]


Perhaps the origins of this difference between the north and south is captured in a set of stories Archie Roach was told by an old man he met at Kuranda, north west of Cairns, in Far North Queensland. The old man told stories for two hours. When Archie thanked him for doing so. He said:


‘I came here to give you these stories and for you to take them, so thank you. We owe you a big debt of gratitude, you southern people. You took the brunt.’


‘The brunt’?


‘You took the brunt of the invasion. They only wanted the green country for their sheep and cows. They didn’t want this kind of country for a while. We got to preserve our old ways. You mob never lost your spears, though, you just put them down’, he said.


‘I’ll never forget that,’ wrote Archie.[9]


In 2014, Patrick Skene encountered the belief when he attended the Grand Final of the Northern Football League Second Division Grand Final when Fitzroy Stars met North Heidelberg Bulldogs. His article appeared under the heading, ‘Golden age of Indigenous Aussie Rules in Victoria beckons’. Unfortunately they lost, but Skene was convinced by Gunditjmara man, Jason Mifsud, the highest ranking Indigenous administrator in the AFL at the time, who was watching the game with his wide-eyed young son Jacquin, and Aaron Clark, head of Victorian Aboriginal Programs that ‘Victorian Indigenous footy is back in business based on strong leadership and culture’.[10] Unfortunately in 2020, while the number of Aboriginal Victorians at AFL level has risen, it still means only 14 have been drafted in the last decade.


The Fitzroy Stars after their grand final defeat. Photograph: Tyson Austin/Red Elephant Projects


Whatever its origins, to Victorian Aboriginal people the bias—conscious or unconscious—against them seems to be real at least as far as football is concerned.


Of course it could be argued that it is much better for young Aboriginal people to take up education and employment rather than sport where the chances of success at the highest level are small for all aspiring footballers. For every Patrick Dangerfield there are lots of young non-Aboriginal people who do not make it to the AFL, but who sought to do so. Indigenous players have many more hurdles to jump and the conditions under which they find themselves after reaching the AFL require major cultural changes on their part.[11] It is incidentally interesting that a study by Richard L. Wright and colleagues published in 2017 has only one Indigenous player from Victoria in its sample of eight players who reached AFL level.


The Victorian player had immense talent that was evident from a young age but he struggled with the processes of transitioning from the Aboriginal culture of footy into and toward the culture of professional footy from the age of thirteen onwards. He quit a schoolboys’ representative team because he felt the structure took the joy out of footy. His club coach made an effort to help him but it was not until making it to the AFL that he felt he had an effective mentor who could help him transition into the culture of professional footy:


‘(He) just painted the canvas of what you need to do to win AFL games. So I started realizing what I needed to do and then what my teammates needed to do and just painted a clear picture on how football is played’.[12]


The AFL deserves considerable credit for its attempts to overcome systematic discrimination against Aboriginal people in football. However, Victorian Aboriginal players are under-represented in the game today, though Indigenous players from other states and territories are over-represented. Given the high proportion of young players being drafted from Melbourne private schools, and the possibility that this will increase if the Under-18 competition does not get going this year, will the AFL do anything to increase the chances of young Victorian Indigenous players being able to have a senior football career?



[1]        Roy Hay, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, 2019. Hardback First Edition: ISBN 9781527526488. Also in 2019. Paperback Edition: ISBN 9781527539723.


[2]        Jessica Coyle, ‘Where are all the Koorie football players? The AFL and the invisible presence of Indigenous Victorians’, Sport in Society, vol. 18, issue 5, 2015, pp. 604–13; and ‘Australian (Rules) football and Aboriginal Victorian football players: Why the Marngrook debate matters’, paper to Australian Society for Sports History Conference Sporting Traditions XXII at Bathurst July 2019.


[3]        AFL Players’ Indigenous Map 2019, http://www.aflplayers.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Indigenous-Player-Map-Update-2019_LR.pdf


[4]        Alexander Darling, ‘Horsham leaders discuss Adam Goodes’ legacy ahead of documentaries’, Mail Times, Horsham, 5 June 2019, https://www.mailtimes.com.au/story/6197742/horsham-leaders-discuss-adam-goodes-legacy-ahead-of-documentaries/; Anna Pavlou, ‘Accidental Destination’, Footy Almanac, 21 November 2018, https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/interview-brett-goodes-accidental-destination/


[5]        Jake Niall, ‘How private schools have taken over the AFL’, Age, 23 November 2019, p. ; https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/how-private-schools-have-taken-over-the-afl-20191121-p53cso.html


[6]        Cover of the 2019 AFL Draft booklet. https://nabafldraftnom.com.au/images/form/booklet_mens.pdf


[7]        Another source has his birthplace as Naracoorte in South Australia.


[8]        Quoted in Michelle Schwarz, A Question of Power: the Geoff Clarke Case, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008, p. 186.


[9]        Archie Roach, Tell me why: Archie Roach: the story of my life and my music, Simon & Schuster, Cammeray, New South Wales, 2019, pp. 239–40.


[10]       Patrick Skene, ‘Golden age of Indigenous Aussie Rules in Victoria beckons’, Guardian Australia, 13 November 2014, amended 11 October 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2014/nov/13/golden-age-of-indigenous-aussie-rules-in-victoria-beckons


[11]       Richard L. Light, John R. Evans & David Lavallee, ‘The cultural transition of Indigenous Australian athletes’ into professional sport’, Sport, Education and Society, vol. 24, no. 4, 2017, pp. 415-26.


[12]       Light et al, ‘The cultural transition’, p. 421.


Roy Hay


More from Roy Hay HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE



  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Excellent Roy! Your scholarship is supreme, thoroughly enjoyed reading your story.

  2. Thanks, Col. You’ve set it out beautifully. It will be interesting to see the reaction(s).

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Highly interesting and thought-provoking, Roy.

    In my short Footy Almanac piece about Geelong’s Argyle Ground I did mention Albert “Pompey” Austin’s appearance for Geelong in the 1872 Geelong-Carlton match held there – also noteworthy was that Tom Wills played in this game, though this time didn’t captain Geelong because he turned up late and therefore wasn’t present for the toss.

  4. Shane Reid says

    I really appreciate your detailed and insightful work here Roy. Thank you.

  5. Thanks folks. It is interesting that the Age and the Conversation both ignored the article when it was offered to them. It would obviously have been far too long for the Herald Sun or the Geelong Advertiser. I am really indebted to John and Col and the team for giving it a run among the real football people.

Leave a Comment