Indigenous players contributions sold short
During Round 5 of the 2019 AFL season Eddie Betts kicked six brilliant goals, including one of the most skilful you could ever wish to see, on his way to 300 games joining Adam Goodes, Shaun Burgoyne, Andrew McLeod, Michael O’Loughlin and Gavin Wanganeen in the pantheon of great Indigenous players to reach the coveted milestone. This achievement was illustrated by a beautiful graphic presented during the games broadcast.
But there is a problem. The pantheon of 300 game Indigenous players is much larger and older than what is actually credited by the AFL.
Instead of just six 300 game indigenous players over the history of the game, there have actually been double that number. Those first class 300-gamers omitted by the VFL/AFL’s historical lens are:
• Barry Cable: 383 first class club games.
• Graham Farmer: 356 first class club games.
• Bill Dempsey: 343 first class club games.
• Nicky Winmar: 341 first class club games.
• Neil Mayard: 323 first class club games.
• Peter Matera: 306 first class club games.
Clearly, Indigenous players at the top level are not a new phenomenon and did not start with Gavin Wanganeen’s AFL debut in 1990. Instead, Indigenous Australians have been huge contributors to the code for a very long time. For example, Graham Farmer made his first class debut with East Perth in 1953, almost four decades before Gavin Wanganeen, but the latter is credited as the first 300-game Indigenous player by the AFL.
Meanwhile, Barry Cable, the Indigenous Australian with the most first class club appearances is credited with only 115 games by the AFL. This is selling Cable’s career short by more than two thirds! Alternatively, when we look to the pioneers of Indigenous football in Australia, the AFL credits Joe Johnson (left, with incorrect spelling of surname) in 1904 as the first Indigenous Australian to make a senior first class debut.
Johnson, a trailblazer in the true sense of the word for his people, was emulating the same courage that Jimmy Melbourne showed in the Western Australian State League in 1900 and Harry Hewitt in the South Australian State League in 1889. Why then are the accomplishments of Cable, Farmer, Melbourne and Hewitt diminished or completely omitted by the AFL’s records?
Something must be amiss.
The obvious answer is that the AFL’s records only include achievements in the national competition along with the former Victorian state league from which it evolved, excluding other states in order to maintain the notion of a single competition linearity.
The desire of a linear historical lens for the AFL’s record books is both arbitrary and parochial. Sure, the VFL did evolve into the AFL — this fact is not disputed. What is disputed is why should other state leagues be completely ignored. For the entirety of the VFL’s existence, apart from the mid 1980s, it was a semi-professional suburban competition located exclusively in Melbourne and its satellite city Geelong. It was a state competition, not a national one.
Granted, demographics would suggest a difference in standard between the top state competition of Victoria when compared to the other heartland states of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania based on population. Even so, was any discernible difference ever significant enough to erase those other heartland states and their players from the history books entirely?
The standard of competition between the different European leagues varies greatly, but Association football’s history books show us that a game for Real Madrid is credited equally alongside a game for Manchester United, Ajax, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund etc! The difference between our state leagues was far narrower than those present in Europe’s national competitions.
Returning to our initial observation, Indigenous Australian’s contribution to the game is compromised by the Victorian-centric historical record of the AFL. This is exacerbated the simple fact that the majority of Australia’s Indigenous population resides outside Victoria. In fact, Victoria is Australia’s most under-represented jurisdiction in regards to Indigenous Australians, with less than 1% of that state’s population identifying as Indigenous¹. This contrasts with Western Australia and Tasmania, which are the most over-represented states with 3.1% and 4.6% respectively. Couple this with South Australia, which has just over double Victoria’s percentage of Indigenous Australian making up its state population.
What do all these demographic statistics mean?
Well, prior to the national competition being officially labelled as such, more likely than not, if an Indigenous Australian was to have their contribution to the game count in the eyes of the AFL they had to displant themselves from their home, family and country and travel to Melbourne to play in a competition of not too dissimilar standard to the one they were already playing in. Their compensation for all this disruption? At least until the late 1980s remuneration was often only equivalent to an average part-time job, subject to the player being a star (and not discriminated against).
For a single country code in an ocean of international sports the custodians of Australian rules football sell our sport’s history very short, even more so for our Indigenous players. It’s time for the AFL to adopt a lens for its history books that reflects the national story of our game.
Note: First class Australian rules football is taken to include the VFA until 1896, The SANFL, Tasmania’s top regional league which would often converge come finals time, the WAFL, and VFL until 1989. These competitions were the top level of the code in their respective states until they were unequivocally superseded by the evolution of the VFL into the AFL.
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics — ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER POPULATION, 2016.