Are Aboriginal league and footy players "too talented"?

Aboriginal players show exceptional natural talent for rugby league, often being the only thing they are proud of. Among all this talent, however, recruiters started calculating players' risks and vulnerabilities.

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Natural talents

Aboriginal people seem to have a natural talent to excel in Rugby League. In the National Rugby League 11% of the players were of Indigenous heritage. In 2008 Australia's national Rugby League team saw a record number of five Aboriginal players (38%) in their ranks of 13.

While they account for only about 2.3% of Australia's population (2008 figures), Aboriginal people account for more than five times that percentage of elite footballers .

"It's like they have radars... they know where the footy is coming from, they know every angle of every ball and every kick needed for any goal," enthuses Kevin Sheedy, an AFL veteran and coach of the Greater Western Sydney Giants, about their talents .

"Aboriginal footballers have added plenty of excitement and a degree of unpredictability and 'X' factor to the performances of our club," admits Kris Grant, CEO of the South Australian Bulldogs .

"I can see a time when there may be as many as 25% of a playing group at a club being Indigenous," predicts Peter Rohde, General Manager of Football Operations at Port Adelaide "You'd expect the numbers to increase and every team now seems to have a number of Indigenous players."

"The speed and flair of Aboriginal footballers, coupled with their skills and creativity, make them perfect for the game," Rohde says.

What would you know about Aboriginal people without footy?

— Sean Gorman, Aboriginal footy expert

AFL dominated by Noongar nation

The Western Australian Noongar nation has been labelled "the most dominant cultural force in the history of Australian rules football" because so many talented players are Noongar.

In 2016, most Aboriginal nations had only a few members playing on national level, except the Noongar:

  • Warray: 1 (Shaun Burgoyne: Hawthorn)
  • Wangkathaa: 2 (Eddie Betts and Daniel Wells)
  • Tiwi: 4
  • Larrakia: 4
  • Palawa: 4
  • Narangga: 5
  • Yorta Yorta: 6
  • Noongar: 25

Of the 73 Aboriginal players in the AFL in 2016, one in three were Noongars, but hardly anyone knows. “The fact that we don’t know – that we think they simply identify as Aboriginal or Indigenous – identifies a terrible gap in our thinking,” says Paul Roberts, who has studied the history of the Noongars and directed Black Magic, the documentary about their sporting success.

There were two Aboriginal coaches at the AFL's senior coaching level, both also Noongars: Graham “Polly” Farmer and Barry Cable.

Clontarf Foundation's CEO Gerard Neesham explains so much talent with simple geography. The Noongar territory is close to the coast and rich in rainfall, meaning their land was close to every developing farming or industrial town – and the centre of every small town is its footy club. “Half your footy team was blackfellas, half was whitefellas. That’s the way it was," he says

Sean Gorman, an expert on Aboriginal issues and footy, offers another view. He puts it down to ancient survival skills, the transformation of traditional dance performances to an athletic contest, and a way for players to express themselves. “It’s all of these things that have aggregated to produce this potent magic, and we – the football public – are the beneficiaries.”

Others see the roots of so much talent in the past. Larry Kickett hard work, combined with millennia spent hunting and gathering, created a "unique athletic alchemy".

It’s the sport we grow up and play and love. Communities get together and mingle. We talk about footy. It makes us stronger.

— Michael Johnson, All Australian centre-half back and Noongar man

Football loved with a passion

Australian rules football has a special place in the culture of many Aboriginal communities. In some instances it has become as much as 'an obsession' and a tool to keep children in school and promote healthy lifestyle messages .

Australian Football League (AFL) is loved 'with a passion' from the Tiwi Islands in the north to the game's spiritual home in Melbourne in the south . It is loved for being an inclusive game that does not discriminate. Football gives Aboriginal people the acceptance and recognition they are longing for.

In many communities the 'footy' plays a crucial role in keeping people together, giving them a sense of community and belonging, offering them an opportunity to meet and exchange news while they cheer the team on — very similar to traditional times when large Aboriginal groups met if seasonal food was in plentiful supply. In this way every football game is an avenue to health and well-being for each individual.

For Jim Krakouer, a Noongar player from Western Australia, playing is all about confidence. "Off the field, I used to go into my shell. But out there, you felt confident. Footy was a way of getting on level ground with the rest of the world."

When we play football there's that connection with the land that we are on and the way that we play. When you see two brothers or three brothers playing on the same team you can just see this natural ability shine through.

— Adam Goodes, Aboriginal football player

Rugby league was only introduced to Australia in late 1907 and yet there is strong evidence that it was first played in Cherbourg in 1908, which would make this small South Burnett Aboriginal mission one of the key birthplaces of Australian rugby league.

Elcho Island (Northern Territory) has Australia's highest per capita participation rate in AFL football.

The largest Aboriginal population lives in the western suburbs of Sydney, the traditional heartland of rugby league.

Story: Playing footy on the moon

In 2008 Liam Jurrah was playing footy barefoot in the dust of Yuendumu, a community about 300km north-west of Alice Springs, NT.

Jurrah' selection in 2011 in the AFL was beyond what anybody thought was possible from a small, remote desert community.

Living out in the bush, AFL may as well be "people playing footy on the moon" .

Jurrah's native tongue, the Warlpiri language, is spoken by only 500 people.

He has become a symbol of hope for many Aboriginal people of what is possible.

Indigenous players splash into puddles of water.
All Blacks rugby league carnival, Cairns. Tropical downpours are a trademark of Cairns where Queensland's biggest rugby league festival is held. Photo: Alf Wilson, Koori Mail

What is it that allows these players to keep getting up for games, when they are under-nourished, inadequately prepared for matches and playing in the harshest conditions of any group in Australia? Two words—desire and passion.

— Tavis Perry, AFL Northern Territory regional development manager

Are Aboriginal players a 'risk'?

Aboriginal players are often praised for their 'magic' or 'x-factor' but there is another aspect to them. Team managers frequently attach a "stigma of risk and vulnerability" to key aspects of their cultural identity .

Research into AFL player recruitment found that clubs continued to see Aboriginal players as presenting particular "risks and vulnerabilities".

Clubs calculate risks based on—among others—what suburb or area Aboriginal players come from, what schools they attend, their family status—good, bad, broken.

It seems AFL clubs overemphasise the danger of Aboriginal players making 'mistakes', e.g. for drink driving or brawling, a risk which is equally present for non-Aboriginal players.

Some such views may be based on thinking Aboriginal players are lacking dedication, and other racist attitudes.


View article sources (12)

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[2] 'Islanders gather to farewell the 'Rolls-Royce' of AFL', SMH 8/1/2011
[3] 'Leaving their marks', Koori Mail 456 p.93
[4] 'Power quals Dockers' record', Koori Mail 449 p.96
[5] [5a] [5b] [5c] [5d] [5e] [5f] [5g] 'The Noongar Warriors', SMH Good Weekend 2/7/2016
[6] 'A racist? What rot!', Koori Mail 426, p.85
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[8] [8a] 'Songs of the north - Culture in Arnhemland', Sunday Telegraph 10/10/2010
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[12] [12a] [12b] 'We're 'different': Research', Koori Mail 489 p.91

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Are Aboriginal league and footy players "too talented"?, <>, retrieved 29 May 2024

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