What’s Going on?

In my months with the Almanac, I have been incredibly impressed with not just the standard of writing, humour and general football wisdom, but also with the sensitivity and care many writers show when dealing with serious football issues.

In recent weeks, and again in the past few days, the issue of how football manages issues related to its growing indigenous community has risen again.

With that in mind, I need to make a couple of statements and disclaimers and then seek guidance from my fellow columnists and readers.

I need clarification from those wiser than I on these issues as to what Mark Neeld has been accused of and why, had he done the things he was accused of, he was seen to have acted poorly and was so hurt by the accusations.

I say at the outset that if my comments and questions appear naive and ignorant it is probably because they are. I do not claim an in-depth knowledge of indigenous issues, and will yield to many of my colleagues who have proven in the articles or comments on the writings of others to have had spent time in their lives much closer with indigenous communities than I. My experience with indigenous Australia is I imagine like a large part of our population, which is limited.

I still cringe when I recall attending a half year of Australian History at Monash Uni in the md 80s and being shamed at my poor understanding of Aboriginal history and treatment. I simply wasn’t taught it in senior school and was shocked at what I didn’t know.

I am embarrassed but feel I need  to stand up and admit to making what I now realise were terrible and childish statements, when I was no longer a child, in relation to the race and colour of footballers in the 80s. I have no excuses for that. I have explanations, lousy ones of course, that I felt they were funny, or everyone else did it, but I feel sick when I look back at what I thought was amusing.

Now as a wiser man with a young growing son, I am trying to right my wrongs, by educating him as I should have been educated, about tolerance, acceptance and understanding.

So I come to the argument and issue needing guidance. Neeld was accused of treating his indigenous players poorly, in that he spoke with them as a group as opposed to how he worked with non-indigenous players which was individually.

What I haven’t gleaned from this episode, is what he spoke about, what the context was and why it is seen to be so vile.

As I said, I do not condone or seek to justify. This is a genuine appeal to the Almanac community for education, of me, and hopefully by extension others, which I believe is being lost in the Jarrah and Neeld issues recently.

Is it that Neeld was seen as assessing his non-indigenous players as not being worthy of his time? Is the accusation that he saw their issues as collectively shared as opposed to treating them as individuals? Is he seen as lecturing them rather than mentoring and guiding others?

Was Neeld being seen to believe that all his indigenous players had the same issues, backgrounds and prospects, thereby creating a stereotype that was inappropriate?

Despite my previously admitted ignorance of indigenous issues, I would argue that there are some issues that indigenous players, especially those new to the football industry or to living in Melbourne, feel and experience that are more common than to those from a non-indigenous player. I read with interest a recent Alamanac article that clearly laid out that issues of homesickness are not colour based, however, if Neeld was talking to the group collectively about issues of distance from their families, their ties and responsibilities to their communities or matters than they are likely to have shared, would that be so bad?

If he met with them to specifically ask them to care for their fellow indigenous player Liam Jarrah as his issues may be better understood by them than someone from a non-indigenous background, would that be wrong?

What if he met them to talk about his empathy for issues of race in football? What if he met them to better educate himself about indigenous issues and ask them to share their experiences with their teammates?

What if he told them that he felt the media attention would be more on them after the Jurrah situation and he empathised?

What has been lost in the media has been what Neeld supposedly talked to the group about?

If a new coach was to meet with most players individually about game plan, strengths and weaknesses or roles and responsibilities, then separate another group and talk en masse, I would be surprised. I would see it as poor coaching, but there’s definitely an innuendo or slight felt by Neeld in the accusation that I don’t get, again probably my ignorance again but one I need guidance on.

I read with interest Adam Goodes’s piece last year in which he criticised the use of the word ‘magic’ when describing skills shown by players like Rioli or himself, as it ignored that these skills are borne from hard work and not some inbuilt gift that comes with colour. When Stevie J kicks a goal lying on his back, he isn’t described the way Cyril is when he breaks through a pack. Buddy is seen as a freak, not a talented and gifted athlete that works hard to increase his skills. Andrew MacLeod was seen as silky smooth somehow indicating that his skills were shared by his race, rather than a player who had talented regardless of background or colour.

So I accept that any stereotype is wrong, that implying that all indigenous players are the same is just like categorising all Americas as brash and overweight or all Scots tight-fisted, or all Australians racist drunks. Issues of poor behaviour are spread throughout football and broken families do not discriminate through colour

The desire to return home for family reasons was highlighted in the case of Leon Davis but isn’t seen as a factor with Judd or Taylor Walker or Phil Davis.

I am happy to put my head above the parapet and get shot at. I have admitted to saying things that I regret in my 20s, and would challenge anyone to be judged in their 40s by what they did in their 20s. But, my questions here are genuine and come from a desire to learn and be educated.

At the moment, it appears that any comment about race can be seen as racist, which will only drive debate and discussion underground.

(I have thought about whether using the term white as opposed to non-indigenous would be seen as wrong through this article.)

If Neeld was to have spoken to a group of indigenous players collectively, on an issue he felt they shared in common or in private, and that wasn’t an issue that was race related (for example, lecturing them about diet when he would not say that to a non-indigenous player group) is that wrong?

Alamanckers with experience in this area, please help.

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. Hi Sean

    We both know that I don’t have any of the virtues you’re fossicking for here (i.e. wisdom, sensitivity etc), but I’ll have a go at this anyway.

    The way I’ve always seen it is that indigenous people just want to be thought of the same way as non indigenous people (understandably.) Whenever they perceive that non indigenous people see them as different, it creates the hypersensitivity that we’ve witnessed recently. The non indigenous persons involved in these incidents most probably meant no offence, but they probably showed a lack of understanding of these sensitivities. We all have to remember that we are only a generation or so on from White Australia policies and the shameful stolen generation chapter. These are open wounds and until they fully heal, indigenous people will continue to display an understandable hypersensitivity towards non indigenous people who are not mindful of these complexities.

    As I said that’s as best as I can make it. I wish I could communicate it more eloquently or with more sophistication, but you know my limitations in both these regards, so this’ll have to do

    Great piece Sean and I admire your courage. Not easy putting your head above the parapet on any issue

  2. John Harms says

    Sean, I reckon your thoughts should have a far wider audience than The Footy Almanac. You identify some of the craziness which is going on. The discussion of these issues in the popular press over the last month (since Majak Daw was suspended) has been limited by a lack of understanding, and a failure to recognise the complexities, despite football commentators starting their discussion with the words ‘these are complex issues’. The point you make is a key one. At the moment there is such fear in the ranks that you will be branded ‘racist’ that the act of being branded and the notion of carrying that branding is an end in itself. The debate, as you so rightly point out, has an earlier starting point with what ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ means, and how it is being used in the footy context. And, again, what is cultural differnce, and what is sensitivity to cultural difference, and when is it appropriate to speak in the general and when should people always speak in the specific.

    Football has shown it is miles off understanding much of this stuff. And you outine the reasons why: a lack of exposure and education. It is also a problem of honesty and will. If I suspect someone is being hurt by my actios (as an individual, or as a polis, and I am a person of conscience, surely I have an obligation to understand the conseqences of those actions, and to right them?) And in terms of understanding this is a problem.It’s also a problem in terms of reconciliation. For how does a constructed nation in denial ever address the key issue which is having the deepest impact on the people who have the greatest claims on this land as their home?

  3. sean gorman says

    Sean give me a call sometime. 08 9266 2648. its a work number. Im on leave until after easter.



  4. John Harms says

    Further to my previous comment Sean, it is the essence of racism which should be the key in the discussion, not the secondary element: is he or isn’t he? As if that is some sort of ‘explain all’?

    Elements of racial stereotyping were used in the Daw reporting, and they continued to surface in the public discussions surrounding Liam Jurrah, Matt Rendell and even in the more recent times regarding Mark Neeld.

    Such discourse affirms deeply held notions of racial stereotypes, and cannot go unchallenged.

    Rarely do we see discussions of the historical/institutional/structural racism which have underpinned power relationships (and people’s lives of course) on this continent and which continue to be the well from which many sup. Hence the discussions usually don’t begin in the right place – even in a football context.

    I would start in a different place when trying to make sense of what has gone on over the past weeks. I would start with notions of identity, and respect for individual and collective being, and the will to create an environment which respects, fosters and celebrates that.

    And I would not have journalists interviewing journalists and ex-footballers about this. I’d be especially seeking out community leaders (indigenous and non-indigenous), and I’d also be interested to hear from civil rights experts, ethicists, anthroplogists et al and those who have spent life-times trying to understand the issues and have worked towards a more inclusive community.

  5. Mark Doyle says

    Sean, I think that Mark Neeld was accused of treating Aboriginal footballers differently from White footballers. Unfortunately, most Australian people have very little understanding of Aboriginal culture and history. I suggest you read history books by Henry Reynolds and James Cowan. Cowan’s book, ‘Mysteries of the Dreaming’ is especially worth a read. It is also important to read various opinions that have been properly researched and documented. I also think that some historians such as Gillian Hibbins are too conservative and do not acknowledge the oral history of Aboriginal people.
    With respect to AFL recruitment, I think a lot of blokes have ignorant, naive and misguided ideas about Aboriginal people. A lot of these ideas are rascist!
    It is also disappointing that most people in the media are only interested in the cheap headline and their own egotistical, self-indulgent, ill-informed and meaningless opinion.

  6. Richard Naco says

    As I currently understand it, Neeld was accused of treating his indigenous players differently to his non-indigenous, and that this was just plain malicious and incorrect. The repercussions and subsequent issues spawned from this fallacy are a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    However, this whole discussion has raised inteeligent and valid questions about the ways that even the most supposedly liberal minded and free thinking of us (and the intended irony here is entirely self deprecating) have still got a bloody long way to go.

    The first step to clearing out an infection is to see it for what it really is. The AFL is doing that, as is our society overall (to varying degrees). Once the source of the infection is identified, the healing process can then kick in.

  7. Thanks all for your thoughts and advice. It was interesting to see that many of the writers and commentators on this site that I respect or enjoy reading were good enough to provide comment.

    John, I agree that this is wider than football and that we have a long way to go as a nation, which considering how much we have progressed, says a lot about how terrible a spot we were in. I cannot fathom at all what being an indeigenous person must have neen like in 1950/60s Australia, when I see what it is still like now, with many real and suppossed advancements having taken place.

    I think football can be a leader for change and has achieved many things that politicians were dragging their feet on. However, we seem to continually fall back a number of steps just when we start making progress.

    I wonder if the trend towards stereotypes in football is a function of clubs wanting all players on their lists to be the same, to see them as one swarm, regimented, drilled and coached to lose individuality and sacrifice that for mass actions, consistent corporate speak and the removal of all emotions and individual aspects of their backgrounds?

    Mark, I was very nervous when I wrote this piece and part of it was seeing if you commented. I have seen many of your replies to writers and you don’t hold back, so I really appreciate you seeing my piece as a plea for greater understanding and guiding me on my journey to greater comprehension of a complex set of issues. I will definately seek out the books you mentioned.

    Sean G, I will call later thsisweek.

    Richard, I really hope you are right. Whilst I cannot right the wrongs of my countryment of past generations, or even correct my poor comments when I was younger, any healing or greater understanding of the issues is a step forward. I hope your optimism is correct.

    Peter, don’t sell yourself short T-bone, I think you read the issue just right, and that we have a long way to go in a sensitive area. Whilst some precious footyheads and ‘traditionalists’ or journos who just see the kick and handpass aspect of our game will see these issues as political correctness or over reactions, it is clear we are still on a journey as a game and country to true equalty.

    Stand in the crowd, outer or members, at any gme for a quarter, and you see prejudice, ignorance and spit come out about race and background. There’s little wonder no AFL player has admitted to being gay, when things that a player can’t hide, like his skin colour, is still such a feature of criticism and comment.

    Thanks all again, and I hope interactions like this are a step in the direction of understanding for all.


  8. A mature approach to a delicate subject Sean.

    What strikes me about what has transpired is given the amount of media coverage this has generated, there is still a requirement for clarification of what has actually occurred, from someone who I imagine pores through the sports pages on a daily basis.

    What a sad indictment on the sports media. Not enough effort was made to determine the validity or context of these claims, there was too much of a rush to get them into print.

    We don’t know what, if anything actually occurred. And if something did we don’t know the context behind it. It may have as Sean has mentioned been a helpful or positive message driven by altruism. But put the word “separate” in a negative context and you can’t be surprised at what happens. And it benefits nobody.

    If there was some sort of negative double standard or schism due to race, then by all means it should be exposed and dealt with accordingly, but half baked headlines and out of context quotes are not the way to do it.

    Here’s some free advice for the sport’s media when it comes to anything off the field. If there is no story, don’t tell it. If you don’t have all the facts, get them before you go to print. Don’t speculate, don’t “what if” don’t “I wonder”. Don’t give us football soap operas. The public does not like them as much as you think it does and it makes you look tacky and desperate.

    Racial intolerance in sport, as in life, is not a punchline. It should not be used in itself to sell papers with whatever level of false pathos you decide to inject.


  9. John

    Thank you for the seminar the other night with Paul, it was a great discussion of the issues surrounding race and indigenous issues currently and in the past in football and our country.

    Mark, I found some of the books you recommended and am particulalry getting into the works of Henry Reynolds, which are both confronting but extremely powerful. Thank you for the advice and interest in me learning more, and the recommendations.

    Sean O’G, will still make sure I make contact


  10. I don’t know the answer Sean. But I offer this as one of the reasons for the confusion.

    I undertook a degree in Parks, Wildlife and Heritage Management some time ago. There are some aspects of the course content that were easily fathomed; they appeared quite tangible.

    There were other aspects that were not. There were many questions that were not and perhaps will not be answered.

    It occurred to me towards the end of my studies that what we are dealing with here is the legacy of what happens when a land is invaded and the omnipowerful culture takes control with no regard for the one(s) that it has usurped.

    What we have in Australia currently is a situation such as the senario if Japan had invaded and taken control of Australia sixty years ago and we were now a satelite iof Japan with their cuklture paramount.

    This is not a comparison of which is the best culture but more af a recognition of the differences and sensitivities when there is cultural difference initiated by a formal government policy of cultural genocide some time ago.

    I was once speaking with one of my university cohorts who was a fully initiated aborigional elder. This issue of spirituality and law was raised. I said that some of the matters he was able to discuss with me were foreign to my formal interlectual and (attempted) religious education. He grinned and said that he struggled to come to terms with a virgin birth and a resurection.

    His explaination was as succinct and salient as it was open.

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