The AFL had the power to turn the tide

Oct 1, 2023
Former AFL player Michael Long in Canberra as part of his recreating his Long Walk in 2004, Wednesday, September 13, 2023. Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas

My mates and I, growing up in our happy, homogenous and very white suburbia in the 1960s and 70s, would probably not have met an indigenous Australian but for playing footy. Without our great game, we might, at least as kids and teenagers, have remained stuck in the fearful ignorance that was pretty common at the time.

The two guys we got to meet played first grade at our club, one a gentle-giant ruckman and the other a speedster on the wings and flanks. They were both absolute gents. They copped a bit from sections of opposition crowds and it was instructive to watch how it was rarely their actual opponents who went in for the racist taunts. It was instructive, too, to watch how their team-mates stuck up for them.

Our narrow horizons were broadened no end.

Fast forward a quarter-century: Masters (over-35) footy is very popular as the 20th century closes. It was all very inclusive: everyone gets a guernsey, no-one left behind but again it was very white, too. I was surprised when I travelled around to various matches and mini-carnivals that there were still the odd few Hansonite-type views being expressed around the fire in the 44-gallon drum over a can or two at the end of the day’s play.

But only a few. More typical, by then, was tolerance but there was one experience I’ll never forget of the power of footy for good.

The biggest prize of our 1999 national carnival in Darwin was, for those who made the All Australian side, to play against some of the famous barefoot indigenous stars from the incomparable St Mary’s club (33 premierships; and only missed the finals three times since being founded in 1952).

I’d previously played in the ruck a number of times against a tough shearer who I knew only as Butch, from the Riverina, and always emerged thoroughly beaten and bruised. We got on OK but you wouldn’t say we were close, a nodding acquaintance and a beer or two when we’d meet up at different games and venues.

Butch was selected in the All Australian side in 1999. Pretty much all those who weren’t went along to watch what was not just the match of the carnival week but of the whole footy year.

To say the St Mary’s guys were phenomenal would be to understate it. By foot and hand, they were as accurate as lasers. And swift? Usain Bolt couldn’t have kept up. Well, not if he had to bounce a footy. And clean? No late nor high shots. No trash talk. Just pure joy in playing.

But the greatest part of the game was the reaction of the normally quite taciturn Butch.

At full-time, he joined us in the stands, lighting a smoke and ripping the top of a can in pretty much the one movement. That was normal. But then he spoke, at length, in one stream of praise: had we seen those guys? They way they just knew where each other were? How magnificent was that? And then the clincher: this bloke who I’d thought pretty shy and retiring, grabbed me by both shoulders and told me that this was what it was all about.

You can have London to a brick on that no-one around Butch’s fire drum will have uttered anything approaching a Hansonite line.

If us little kids could have the shells fall from our eyes by watching the example of those two first-graders all those years ago, and if us middle-aged guys could be so moved by the through-going gentlemanliness of the St Mary’s players, what might the AFL have been able to do for the Yes campaign today?

A fortnight ago, The Guardian recorded the disappointment of indigenous champions “Magic” Michael O’Loughlin and Michael Long that they didn’t think the AFL was doing enough throughout the finals to promote a Yes vote and that Grand Final day might not be seized as it might.

That fear has been realised. Nothing much seems to have happened beyond Welcomes to Country in the two weekends of finals since The Guardian piece.

If something out of the box regarding the Voice were to be on for Grand Final day, you’d reckon we might have heard about it at least as much as we’ve heard that a group of septuagenarian American rockers in dress-ups were going to make a bit of noise before the ball-up.

Still, I woke hopeful on Grand Final morning.

Both the Lions and Mapgies had posted their support for the Voice with statements on their web sites, the Brisbane version declaring, “We strongly believe that Australian rules football is a powerful platform for promoting positive societal change.”

The Collingwood statement went beyond just the Voice, opening with what you might see as some truth-telling: “The Collingwood Football Club has been on a journey for a number of years now to better understand its past in order to be better for the future and the Board’s support for a First Nations Voice to Parliament is a natural progression of its commitment to doing and being better.”

Great stuff.

What might we get next?

I was imagining that classic aerial shot of a packed MCG, with people of all ages in all club colours running out from the centre circle, opening a huge canvas with “Yes” clear for all the world – or at least all of Australia – to see.

But I was dreaming.

The AFL has prided itself on being socially responsible, on being caring and on being something of a role model.

It has incredible power, which it generally seems to have used for good.

On The Voice, however, in my view, while it formally expressed support, the AFL has hung back and refused to put its head right over the ball and have a fair dinkum go on its biggest day.

It is a contest that demands to be won, and a contest the AFL could have swung the right way as we near time-on in this most important campaign.

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