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Act now on football's changing landscape


Martin Flanagan

I'D HEARD the whispers before and, since Liam Jurrah's dramas of the past week, the whispers have grown louder - AFL clubs are starting to back away from recruiting indigenous players.

They're ''too hard'', it is said, ''too much trouble''. Recruiters are paid to deliver premierships, not racial harmony, the argument runs. Sponsors don't want their names associated with players breaking the law or offending community values.

Eddie McGuire, on his new show on Fox TV, made reference to the matter, although he put it in a larger context. He asked: ''Is it becoming too hard not only for indigenous players but also for other kids without formal education?'' He repeated the statistic that AFL players now have 15 contact hours of tuition a week - more, he claimed, than a commerce student at Melbourne University.

The AFL needs to act and it needs to act quickly. The game accrued a lot of moral authority during the 1990s and early 2000s by the lead it took in the area of indigenous relations, thereby cementing its status as the national game. Now we've entered another phase.

In my experience, when there are rising tensions between different groups, whether they be racial or religious, there is really only one remedy. Engagement. The alternative to engagement is a cycle of rumour and speculation that eventually finds expression through media types who mistake valuable opinion for saying the first thing that comes into their head, as opposed to arriving at a final judgment based on the best information available.

The AFL needs to get everyone together in a big room for what in international politics is called a summit. The clubs obviously need to be present - particularly as they now have so much power, the recruiters. But, no less, organisations such as AFL NT and AFL Central Australia also need to be represented.

The speakers should include former indigenous champions such as Andrew McLeod. McLeod addressed a forum of the United Nations in Geneva; he can address the AFL.

Past players such as the Marngrook Footy Show's Chris Johnson should be invited. If necessary, discussions should be held behind closed doors so that people can speak frankly, but the aim of the discussions should be this - how do we work our way through this problem together?

There has been discussion recently over whether proposed changes to the interchange rule will disadvantage indigenous players. As with all proposed rule changes, the people whose views I'm most interested in are the players. But I also want to hear from the indigenous players.

Sydney's Adam Goodes is entitled to be seen as a major figure in the game. I want to hear what he thinks. I have heard Hawthorn's Shaun Burgoyne speak - in the quietest of ways, he was firm and utterly clear in his opinions. I want to know what he thinks.

McGuire's estimation of the game's trajectory and current whereabouts is, I believe, correct. It seems a sad but inevitable consequence of modern professional sport that the wealthier sports become, the more people are employed in specialist and coaching capacities and the more technical the games become.

It doesn't mean the games become any better or more enjoyable to watch. Indeed, I would argue the main thrust of all this applied thought to Australian football has been essentially negative. Basically, the changes of the past decade have amounted to borrowing tactics from other sports, notably soccer and basketball, that frustrate or block the passage of the ball from one end of the ground to the other. Compare that with the contribution of the person who came up with the idea of the high mark.

As the game becomes more about systems of play, more about programmed plays and cramming players' heads with information before the match, I always go back to a remark of Nathan Buckley's: ''Footy's like a tune. The indigenous players never forget it - the rest of us struggle to remember it at times.''

In terms of material wealth, footy's bigger than ever but those with a responsibility to the game would have to be drunk with power to forget for a single moment that our code is locked in a race to survive with soccer and the two rugby codes. If Melbourne Victory disappoints this season, it can recruit a couple of Brazilians for next year. If Melbourne Storm disappoints this season, it can go to New Zealand or scour the Pacific Islands for likely replacements.

In the Irish language there is a phrase, ''sinn fein'', which translates as ''ourselves alone'' - that is the position of Australian football. We have no ready supply of players outside these shores. Furthermore, when I went to school, everyone played sport and everyone played football and cricket. Now only those who are good at sport play sport and footy has to compete with a smorgasbord of activities for their affections.

Can anyone seriously suggest Australian football would have been a better, more enjoyable game without the talents of Farmer, Jackson, Rioli, the Krakouer brothers, Long, McLeod, Wanganeen etc? Yes, relations across the cultural divide at the heart of this country are hard, but every weekend coaches demand what is hard from players. It's time for those running the game to step up.

The argument can be summarised simply. In 2012, the face of the game is an indigenous player, Hawthorn's Buddy Franklin. Richmond passed him up in the draft because they thought he was trouble.

26 comments so far

  • Are the AFL backing away from recruiting all white blokes because of Ben Cousins? Serial womaniser Wayne Carey didn't lead to a "whitewash" solution. So why may I ask are you suggesting a whole race of people are not being recruited? Turn any corner and there's a Clontarf clinic in a school recruiting talented Aboriginal kids. I respect Mr Flanagan very much but this his suggestion this time is too tenuous to be taken seriously.

    Plus one
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 12:15AM
    • Tenuous agreed and slightly adrift.

      What I find amazing is an article like this can make reference and print remarks made by white people in AFL but not one referenced remark from a black player. In doing so you've clearly labelled black players as faceless pawns in AFL. Why don't the media and the likes of people like this author take responsibility and print what black people in AFL think?.. god forbid.

      Bogan Brouhaha
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 8:51AM
  • There is a lot in this, and I agree. It is time to be enlargeners. We can be.

    Tim C
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 1:04AM
    • What ever happened to common sense? Since most things are totally ruined by political correctness and affirmative action, why not destroy the AFL with it as well? It's only fair.

      Dr Strangelove
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 3:06AM
      • Congratulations Martin on all your marevellous insight into this serious issue.The big picture perspective is essential for morality and survival in any undertaking, and sport is no exception. Sport is always larger than the game. I've seen the Rugby / Apartheid, FIFA / Colonial Africa and Olympics/ Politics struggles threaten to destroy the games, yet emerge strengthened through truth and justice.
        I was involved in the first Aboriginal /Islander introduction to Cairns TAFE and the formation of their first Aussie Rules teams in Cairns and Mareeba. We encountered terrible racism and also had terrible headaches with our indigenous members. But the successes 30 years on far outweigh the failures. The sheer talent that has emerged is a joy to witness. Besides it's social justice. The bottom line is we owe it to them not to give up. We destroyed their life in a mere 100 years, so we must persist for at least as long. The essence and joy of AFL is encapsulated in the spirit of these wonderful indigenous fellow aussies.
        Martin's suggestion is absolutely correct. We must have a discussion and we must listen.
        On his other point,I see China as a huge potential for our game and if we can't handle our own cultural divides, we'll never succeeed there.

        Date and time
        March 13, 2012, 4:06AM
        • Not picking up Buddy because he was "trouble"??? I am not even a Richmond supporter, so when I say this there is no bias; just 2 words: Ben Cousins.

          jason phillips
          south yarra
          Date and time
          March 13, 2012, 5:14AM
          • Melissa & I say tyhat Then AFL Should Realize the Seience is a part of AFL Football and they are fightuing a losing battle.

            JASON & MELISSA
            Date and time
            March 13, 2012, 6:06AM
            • Leaving aside the issue of the participation of the more culturally traditional indigenous players. I think it is a very important message to send to aspiring young professional sports people that there lack of formal education WILL hamper or even exclude them from their AFL ambitions. A very clear message needs to be sent by the AFL that success is dependent not only on talent and hard training but also on being a well rounded contributing member of society. The most important time for a young person's learning is when they are in the formal primary and secondary school environment and the AFL should support this ideal. Sending the message to young people that they can squander their education opportunities and the AFL will still give them a chance is not appropriate. Perhaps the AFL could lead the way by not recruiting 18 year olds that are not either studying or in employment. Maybe the AFL draft camp should include tests of basic literacy and numeracy and short of a diagnosed recognised learning disability a failed test would exclude the candidate from the draft. Then the candidates would do all their hard work to achieve these levels before they get to the AFL, just as they do with their athletic and football skills.

              Date and time
              March 13, 2012, 6:35AM
              • 'Sponsors don't want their names associated with players breaking the law or offending community values'
                I'm not sure where you're coming from on this but I'm sure there have been just as many ,if not more non-indigenous players 'breaking the law and offending community values' over the last few of years, just like lots of other so called Australian sportsmen. But they're just Larrikins aren't they? Perhaps it's the press approach that's different? or is it deeper?

                Date and time
                March 13, 2012, 6:38AM
                • What rubbish Flanagan, Richmond passed up on Franklin because he didn't fit in with the mindset of the then new coach Terry Wallace who demanded small running players - so they recruited Richard Tambling, who some might also recall is Aboriginal.

                  Don't create myths to back up an opinion.

                  Date and time
                  March 13, 2012, 8:02AM

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