Indigenous dream not yet realised

23 May 2013

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The image of Nicky Winmar raising his guernsey and pointing to his skin is one of the most iconic images in the history of Australian Football.

“I’m black, and I’m proud to be black,” stated Winmar, in direct response to racial vilification he was experiencing during Collingwood’s clash with St Kilda at Victoria Park in 1993.

To combat racial taunting of Aboriginal players by spectators and opponents, the AFL instituted the first Australian sporting law prohibiting racial vilification – Rule 30: Discrimination and Racial and Religious Vilification[AN1]  in 1995.

18 years on, the AFL has made significant additions to help alter the attitudes towards players from a multicultural background.

The AFL has implemented an annual Indigenous Round it takes place this weekend which pays tribute to AFL Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander players. The highlight is the Essendon versus Richmond ‘Dreamtime at the ‘G’ match on Saturday night, starting with the ceremonial Long Walk led by Michael Long.

10 AFL Multicultural Ambassadors have been delegated to “deliver cultural awareness,” including Ahmed Saad, Bachar Houli, and Israel Falou.

There are also suggestions personal anti-racist appeals from AFL players will be broadcast across scoreboards before games in the near future.

These changes prove we have come a long way since Winmar lifted his St Kilda guernsey. So why is it still acceptable for a non-Anglo AFL player to be referred to as ‘magical’ or ‘freakish’ with ‘raw pace’ and ‘natural ability’? How can we really expect to eradicate racism from our game if these terms don’t ring moral alarms?

Yes, racism is always going to exist.

In Round 2, Blue Chris Yarran was allegedly called a “petrol sniffer” and a “black c**t.” In Round 5, Kangaroos Majak Daw, Daniel Wells and Lindsay Thomas were too all subject to racial taunts. In Round 7, Daw again was the victim of racial abuse.

It goes without saying, any such racist acts need to be stamped out across the league.

But there’s a bigger issue here than blatant xenophobia: the subtle, often unconscious reinforcement of stereotypes by the media.

Google Majak Daw and the first two things you will discover is he is ‘Sudanese-born’ and has a ridiculously toned body. It’s almost impossible to read an article or watch footage of ‘Magic Majak’ without someone reinforcing his Sudanese nationality.

Yes, he kicked six goals against the Western Bulldogs, but how is stating his nationality when reflecting on his performance relevant? Tom Lynch kicked 10 goals against GWS and not once does the media mention his place of birth. It’s the same with Fijian Nic Naitanui and Brazilian Harry O’Brien.

Last week was the clash of NicNat v Majak. Geelong’s Jimmey Bartel admitted his excitement for the media-fuelled blockbuster in a piece for The Age, saying it had “highlight reel written all over it.”

‘It was the prospect of watching two of the most exciting, young and athletic players in our game in Majak Daw and Nic Naitanui going head-to-head,’ Bartel explained.

‘Like many football lovers I admire and are amazed at the skills, creativity and flair that the indigenous players bring to the game.’

Exciting. Creative. Athletic.

Bartel is assuming Indigenous players possess different skills and qualities than non-indigenous players. The stereotype that multicultural players are natural, magical and freakishly fast is a general assumption AFL commentators reinforce.

In an April Sydney Morning Herald article, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond believe ‘Aboriginal players are still routinely spoken of in terms of their magical abilities and special talents, in ways that ignore the countless hours they have spent honing their skills.’

A 25-second clip of Lewis Jetta being chased by Cyril Rioli in the 2012 Hawthorn Sydney Grand Final encapsulates Chris Hallinan, Toni Bruce and Jason Bennie’s concern that ‘Aboriginal players [are] described as being mesmeric and scintillating, and as having breathtaking flair, inventiveness, exquisite touch and wizardry, magical football ability, instinct, natural talent, and a different sense of time and space.’

This creates a significantly ingrained cultural problem. Media commentators unconsciously strengthen racial ideologies already accepted among society, and therefore go unquestioned.

Although not directly calling someone a derogatory term, labelling the footrace between two Aboriginals as “a main event in any stadium in the world” is reinforcing stereotypes. That is the essence of racism.

The AFL implemented ‘Rule 30’ to combat racial taunting of Aboriginal players by spectators and opponents, but it doesn’t govern what a commentator or journalist can say.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can apologise, the High Court can pass the Eddie Mabo Case, Nicky Winmar can reflect on the 20 years since his historic day, and we can dedicate an entire round to acknowledging the Indigenous contribution to the AFL.

But as long as these media biases exist, we won’t ever truly eradicate racism from the AFL.


Liana Neri is a La Trobe University Bachelor of Journalism graduate. You can follow her on Twitter: @liana_neri