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Five years ago guidelines were established to help Indigenous AFL recruits throughout their careers. But with little being done, a group of ex-players has now decided to turn words into actions. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Indigenous players and the AFL

Liam Jurrah in action during a 2012 VFL game.
Credit: Hamish Blair / Getty Images

The AFL recently celebrated a hallmark event of its 2018 season, the Sir Doug Nicholls Round. On the field, there were pre-game celebrations and teams wore special guernseys designed by Indigenous artists. But for all the fanfare and extra official AFL merchandise, what was actually being done behind the scenes to support future generations of Indigenous footballers?

Off the field in the lead-up to the Indigenous Round – as it’s commonly known – rumours surfaced that a group of retired Indigenous footballers were threatening to create their own independent players’ association, believing they could better support First Nations players. On The Footy Show, AFL journalist Damian Barrett said the group was led by Michael O’Loughlin, Derek Kickett and Des Headland.

This week, those three and several other former players – calling themselves the Indigenous Past Players Group (IPPG) – released a report, detailing the experiences of 25 Indigenous players in the AFL. While some expressed positive feelings about the code, the response was overwhelmingly negative. “For too long I have spoken with parents who say, ‘No, we don’t want out kids to play AFL, they don’t know how to look after blackfellas there’,” says one anonymous player, referred to as 14 in the report.

Five years have passed since the AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA) introduced a set of guidelines, born out of discussions with Indigenous players in the league. They make a range of recommendations, including the presence of a permanent Indigenous liaison officer at every AFL club, cultural awareness training, and engagement with local Indigenous services. But only a handful of clubs have implemented any of these.

Indigenous AFL expert Sean Gorman, author of the IPPG’s report, says the guidelines should be compulsory. “[Currently,] it’s up to whether or not the clubs put those on the shelf and they gather dust or they become an active part of the broader discussions around these sorts of things alongside things like reconciliation action plans,” he says.

Gorman stresses that clubs need to be more culturally competent and understand the importance of culture to Indigenous players. “I can’t think of any club that doesn’t have a cohort of Aboriginal players that come from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences,” he says.

The AFLPA guidelines came a year after the 2012 exit from the AFL of Liam Jurrah, whose story highlights the failure of the league to support Indigenous players. Jurrah was recruited from Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. He was the first Indigenous person from a remote community to play football at the highest level.

An incredible talent, a then 21-year-old Jurrah was No. 1 pick in the 2009 pre-season draft. He went on to play 36 games for the Melbourne Demons, winning the club’s Harold Ball Memorial Trophy for best new player in 2009 and mark of the year in 2010. In 2011 he was the club’s leading goal kicker.

During those first few years in the AFL, Jurrah lived with academic Bruce Hearn Mackinnon and his family in Melbourne. “He was just a freakish talent,” says Hearn Mackinnon. “He was potentially the most talented player in the entire AFL. But talent alone doesn’t make you a successful player. We were just beginning to see the potential with Liam when it all started to unfold and went pear-shaped, unfortunately.”

Jurrah’s promising career was overshadowed by family and cultural commitments that forced him to prematurely quit the AFL in 2012. “There were certain situations that were playing out within his community which Liam had no control over,” says Sean Gorman, who believes the code was not prepared to deal with Jurrah’s specific cultural circumstances. “That was causing him a great deal of anguish. He was effectively an elder-in-waiting – an initiated man – who had many connections to his Warlpiri people,” Gorman says.

“There’s never been a case like that before [in the AFL] … It was new territory for them and they were struggling,” says Hearn Mackinnon. “There were some people of goodwill within both football clubs who were trying to do their best, trying to help, but I think, overall, the sufficient skill set in my opinion was not there in AFL clubs at that time.”

Hearn Mackinnon believes the time and effort required for clubs to understand the unique needs of Indigenous players is still lacking. “It’s about someone who has the time and resources to fully engage … not just with the player but with their family and with their community,” he says.

Gorman says some AFL clubs may have used the Jurrah experience as a reason to not recruit players from remote Indigenous communities. “I just hope that clubs don’t see the Liam Jurrah example as being the be-all and end-all of the way that should be. People within the industry need to see [the Jurrah story] and learn from those sorts of examples.” He says people in remote areas who want to play football at the highest level need to be given more support.

Hearn Mackinnon says the lack of Indigenous players from remote communities underscores a larger issue about support and resources. “It’s not really a question of race … Modern footballers are nowadays almost exclusively recruited from private schools. Young white kids from state schools don’t get much of a look-in these days either. They tend to recruit people who have come from elite training, elite environments, so that they are almost ready-made. That takes the risk out of it for clubs.”

Neville Jetta was part of the Indigenous cohort drafted by Melbourne that included Jurrah. Jetta, who is from Bunbury in Western Australia, says he doesn’t think he would have been playing AFL if it wasn’t for his famous family connections, which include Nicky Winmar, Lewis Jetta and Leroy Jetta. “There was a sort of family club, or community club, where all the Indigenous players would play at,” he says, “and I made my way up through the ranks and age groups.”

Neville Jetta played in the WAFL before being drafted by Melbourne. He says he felt supported when he arrived at Melbourne by other Indigenous players such as Matthew Whelan and Aaron Davey. He says having Whelan return to the club as an Indigenous project officer has had a significant impact.

“[Whelan’s] taken the weight off not only myself, but other Indigenous players at the club, so that we can just focus on football and he can deal with stuff that’s behind the scenes like the lead-up to Indigenous Round, Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week,” says Jetta. “There are a lot of things the club would ask us to do over the years and we were the guys they were coming to for the answers and some boys aren’t able to answer those questions.”

Jetta says the AFLPA guidelines were devised to help younger players who were still finding their feet “not only in their own community but within the footy club”. He said these young men probably didn’t have the confidence  to express their culture in the early stages of their career.

Melbourne is one of just four clubs in the AFL – Port Adelaide, West Coast and Adelaide are the others – with a permanent Indigenous liaison officer, one of the AFLPA’s key guidelines for supporting Indigenous players. Geelong and Collingwood have someone on a part-time basis.

“There have been profound improvements since we’ve introduced these guidelines, but we’re still striving for every club to adopt every one of the recommendations within these guidelines,” says Paul Marsh, CEO of the AFLPA. “We’re not there yet.”

Tanya Hosch is the head of inclusion and social policy in the AFL and the first Indigenous member of the AFL executive. Asked if the league is considering mandating the AFLPA guidelines, she says it is not a discussion the AFL executive has had yet.

Since Jurrah’s departure, Hosch says a number of players from remote communities have joined the AFL, including Daniel Rioli and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. Currently, there are six players from remote communities at five clubs. According to the AFLPA, about 10 per cent of male players in the league are Indigenous and 5 per cent of female players in the AFLW are Indigenous.

Neville Jetta, who is currently a member of the AFLPA’s Indigenous Advisory Board, believes there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of addressing the problem. He says clubs need to do a mountain of work before they talk to an Indigenous player and find a way to understand where players are coming from. He also thinks the league could do more to support Indigenous players transitioning out of the game.

“I’d say the record of Indigenous players being successful post-footy hasn’t been great. As an advisory board member and part of the AFLPA, and as a player within the footy club, you want to be able to see these players do well post-AFL,” says Jetta.

On Thursday, the IPPG had its first public meeting in Melbourne – fronted by former Brisbane Lions and Fremantle midfielder Des Headland. The group, which also includes 1993 Brownlow medallist Gavin Wanganeen, was quick to stress that it’s not a “splinter” cell from the AFLPA. One of its key focuses though, after securing corporate funding, will be the wellbeing of Indigenous players both during their professional career and after they retire.

“Some of our players have said that they haven’t watched an AFL match since they left the game [due to their experiences], which is sad in a way, and they don’t want that to happen to the next generation,” Headland told The Saturday Paper.

Since leaving the AFL, Liam Jurrah has been arrested and jailed several times. Last year he returned to football, in the Central Australian Football League. Hearn Mackinnon keeps in touch with Jurrah. He says that despite the challenges the Warlpiri man faced during his brief time in the AFL, Jurrah’s career was a success. “The very fact that Liam was able to play one AFL game, I think, is just an absolute achievement and I see him as a trailblazer not just for his community but for Indigenous players from remote communities across Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Culture club". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.