Cover of book: Personal Score: Sport, culture, identity

Ellen van Neerven
Personal Score: Sport, culture, identity

The AFL’s Indigenous round is highlighted by the “Dreamtime at the ’G” game, an annual MCG fixture between Richmond and Essendon. The build-up to the match, in the week prior to the game, showcases the achievements of First Nations players, officials and supporters. This year the ultimate honour went to Glenn James, a Yorta Yorta man who umpired 166 senior games, including two VFL grand finals, in 1982 and 1984. James remains the only known Aboriginal person to umpire at the highest level. Another tradition of the Dreamtime round includes a Welcome to Country ceremony by Wurundjeri Elders and a ceremonial dance before the match, recognising the sacred ground on which the game takes place.

In the opening pages of Personal Score: Sport, culture, identity, Ellen van Neerven, of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage, asks a direct and profound question of each of us who participates in sport, who watches as a spectator and who walks and breathes on First Nations Country. Van Neerven asks, “What does it mean to play sport on First Nations land?” Additionally, they want to know, “Do we need to know the truth of land before we can play on it? Indeed, should we do anything on Country without knowing the truth?”

The author doesn’t answer these questions for us, no doubt because van Neerven understands such questions require the deep and patient thinking that cannot provide easy answers but can instil in us an ethical engagement with Country.

Personal Score does not fit within the traditional genre of the memoir-sports biography. Van Neerven has a lifelong passion for the round-ball game – call it football or soccer – as both player and spectator. They watch their beloved Matildas, the Australian women’s national team, in a state of anxiety. They become depressed when their team loses and delirious when Australian captain Sam Kerr, after scoring a spectacular goal, nails the moment with a perfectly executed backflip. We also learn van Neerven is a fierce competitor on the pitch, labelled by opponents and teammates alike as “aggressive”.

The contradictions that surround competitive team sport as experienced by First Nations players provide a telling insight into the psychological impact on competitors. Van Neerven introduces us to the history of several traditional games enjoyed by First Nations communities. And “enjoyment” is the key word: van Neerven reminds us that many of these games do not involve scoring, “winners” or “losers”, and are enjoyed by men, women and children playing on the same ground together. And yet, when van Neerven is introduced to football at a young age by their dedicated parents, they find they are very good at the game – a gun striker – and they want to win. Badly.

As a parent of five children who all played competitive sport as kids, Personal Score reminded me of both the sheer joy and anguish that my children experienced on sports fields across Melbourne. I don’t believe I drove them too hard to succeed, although had I done so it would have mattered little, as they had no hesitancy in deciding when the gig was up. One of my daughters was a very good athlete. On the day she won a gold medal at a Little Athletics carnival she also quit the track, explaining to me in the car on the way home that “one medal is enough for me”. My son was a talented Australian rules footballer as a junior. He also quit at the “height” of his career, preferring to take off each Sunday morning with a skateboard under his arm and freestyle his day away in happiness.

Van Neerven, through their own experiences as player and spectator, asks us to consider what we value most about sport and how we can nurture and protect it. They discuss racism and its impact on First Nations people and remind us the bigotry experienced by women of colour and LGBTIQSB+ people (including Indigenous sistergirls and brotherboys) involved in sport receives little coverage in the media in comparison with male sport. This is a terrible omission considering many women and gender-diverse players have proudly come out over the years. Their own courage should be matched by our support, particularly when they suffer abuse on and off the field.

Country, a living, breathing entity, is at the centre of Personal Score. In the opening paragraph of the book, Kombu-merri (Yugambeh) Elder Dr Mary Graham explains that “at the centre of First Nations beliefs are two things: ‘Land is the law’ and ‘You are not alone in this world’ ”.

Van Neerven comes to understand the spiritual heart of this philosophy through their own experience. After arriving in Naarm (Melbourne), they join the Brunswick Zebras Football Club in 2018. Van Neerven is, not surprisingly, a little anxious: a new city, new club and teammates, new opponents to weave around and put a round ball in the back of a net. Van Neerven does find a place for themselves, knowing they are on First Nations land, Wurundjeri Country: “I was drawn to the ground that we played on, which backs onto the Merri Creek. On a cold, misty night, it could be the most peaceful place in Brunswick.”

UQP, 384pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Personal Score: Sport, culture, identity".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription