Illustration: Mick Connolly
To see Liam Jurrah in prison is confronting, but not in the way you'd imagine.
Sitting opposite me behind the barbed wire was an intelligent man with a better command of the English language, his second tongue, than a few journalists I've known, let alone most footballers. He was thoughtful and polite and made interesting, frank observations about his own position, his old club and the game, without a skerrick of self-pity.
Here was a smart and affable guy, with excellent language skills, who was also a gifted athlete, and had played the most popular spectator sport in country at the highest level with exceptional flair.
He had - and has - so much in his favour. Yet, here he was, in an Alice Springs jail for the second time, sharing a room with his father, with his mother, cousins and the odd in-law in the same correctional facility.
The most striking impression wasn't the prison cliche of a man struggling to survive, isolated in his bleak, brutal surrounds. It was that this environment had been normalised. He had a routine - which he likened to football's daily rigors, such as training - and he obviously did not want for company.
To be incarcerated didn't seem to be a big deal to him. ''I'm fine,'' he said, at least twice.
The confronting part was to reflect on Jurrah afterwards, and wonder about what role football might have played - if any - to avoid bringing him to this position. How this outcome could have been avoided? The game brought him to national attention, and focused the AFL lens, however briefly, on the different universe of remote indigenous communities. But it didn't change the reality of a man caught between tribal factions, who had issues with alcohol and who would subsequently be imprisoned for domestic violence.
The game couldn't touch the very complex series of circumstances that contributed to his position. Jurrah didn't think the Melbourne Football Club in any way responsible for his sad exit from the elite level of the game. ''It was all Yuendumu,'' he said.
It was also troubling to guess how many other young indigenous men were incarcerated in similar, or worse, circumstances that the wider, white world would never know or care about. Yes, they're in jail for a reason, but the reason isn't simply whatever crime was committed.
This leads to the question of what football - the indigenous code that is so embraced and celebrated by Aboriginal Australia - can and can't do about indigenous disadvantage. To spend time in Alice Springs, as I have these past four days, forces the comfortable, urban Australian to consider Aboriginal suffering in a less abstract way. In football parlance, the issue is front and centre here.
The AFL's indigenous round, timed to coincide with national reconciliation week, was introduced by the AFL to ''celebrate'' indigenous football and the contribution to the locally invented game of our first people.
The Dreamtime game has established as the round's marquee game, for which both Essendon and Richmond should ultimately be thankful to two people: Michael Long and Kevin Sheedy. That pair and Adam Goodes have done more to foster the Aboriginal cause, within the AFL, than anyone in the public arena.
But if the indigenous round was supposed to be a feel-good few days, with some ceremony, ritual and photo opps, it has become something less innocent, yet more substantial. Last year, the celebrations were overpowered by the racial slur on Adam Goodes by a 13-year-old girl and the ensuing media brouhaha. Depressing as it was, the Goodes episode - and the mixed public reaction - acted as a timely reality check for those who thought the game had banished racist attitudes.
This year, Goodes was booed (by a minority of Essendon fans, who may have had varying motives) and then subjected to unambiguous online abuse in the weekend before indigenous round. Then, consider Jurrah's situation, where the Demons were either too busy, or unwilling, to visit one of their former players in jail.
Melbourne couldn't or wouldn't see Jurrah, while Nicky Winmar couldn't or wouldn't make the plane trip across from Perth to officiate at the St Kilda-Collingwood game. The Saints, who had booked Winmar on a Wednesday morning flight, had him lined up for club speaking gigs, for which he is contracted to be paid by the AFL.
Winmar's pointed gesture at Victoria Park in 1993 remains the most seminal moment for the football coming to terms with racism, football's answer to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat in Alabama in 1955.
The AFL's new boss Gillon McLachlan recently consulted with indigenous leaders. Part of McLachlan's mission was to discover where the AFL's boundaries lay. The league is certain that it should combat racism with public awareness, and it is backing the campaign for constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
But what, if anything, should the game do for the likes of Jurrah? The term ''duty of care'' is ubiquitious in footy, and it's arguable that the clubs, or the AFL, should extend a duty of care to players who have been brought into the AFL system from remote communities. Others will see that obligation as excessive.
Watching the Demons against Port Adelaide in Alice Springs, the AFL's first female commissioner, Sam Mostyn, offered this appraisal of what football can - and cannot - attempt to achieve for indigenous Australia.
''Football isn't government and it isn't football's role to solve all social matters and we need to acknowledge that,'' Mostyn said. ''But football plays such an important role in the lives of indigenous people across the country and it has done for a very long time ... we can touch so many people and bring a story to many more Australians.''
Mostyn said the ''recognise logo'' placement at centre bounces meant it would be seen by 5 million Australians. ''Not many organisations, other than football, could do that.'' But she added: ''We just have to be very cautious about the extent to which we can help with the broader issues. Step quietly and carefully and do a lot of listening and understand where football can play its role and where it can't.''
Mostyn agreed that the unsavoury incidents, such as the vilification of Goodes, had a silver lining. ''They are important. Adam himself has said, only last week, that he believes that the racism issue will get worse before it gets better in football because there's now permission granted to our fans, to our members, to our players to actually call out racism where they see it. And they will. Historically that's not been the case. So we may see a lot more complaints.''
Confronting the various forms of indigenous disadvantage - from Jurrah in jail, to the treatment of Goodes - isn't a choice for the game. The question is how.