All-Indigenous teams should be seen on the world stage

The AFL’s Indigenous All-Stars’ current tour of Ireland is the third overseas sporting tour by an all-Indigenous Australian team. The first took place 145 years ago with the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of England. In between was the 1973 tour of a rugby league side to New Zealand.
The 1868 cricket squad became the first organised group of Australian cricketers to tour overseas. Unlike the touring sportsmen of today, we don’t know why these men got on the Parramatta in early February 1868 and headed into a fate that was at best uncertain – and possibly doomed. The Aboriginal cricketers came from the western districts of Victoria.
The towns known as Warracknabeal, Ararat, Moyston and Horsham were the traditional homelands to the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung people. There is no real trace – no diaries, no blogs, no Tweets – of any of the players’ thoughts while on tour.
What we can be sure of is that the men on the 1868 tour were brave. As sports historian Bernard Whimpress reminds us:
It is well to remember that at the time when Aboriginal heads were being collected in European museums the cricketers must have seemed something like living museum pieces.
We know that the trip by sea lasted four months and the team were in England for nearly 12 months. While on tour they played 47 games in total. There were 19 draws, 14 wins and 14 losses. The best of the batsmen and the bowlers were Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin) and Johnny Cuzens (Zellanach).
Historian David Sampson has written that the displays of Aboriginal weaponry during the tour of Britain were more appealing to many spectators than the cricket itself, as demonstrations of boomerang and spear-throwing took centre stage.
Wotjobaluk warrior Dick-a-Dick’s (Jungunjinanuke) challenge to the crowd to throw cricket balls at him elicited the most interest. As the projectiles rained down and whizzed past his head, Dick-a-Dick was cool and poised as he moved easily out of the way or deflected the balls with consummate ease with his thin shield.
By contrast, the Indigenous AFL players who will take part in the two-Test tour of Ireland will undoubtedly take to social media to provide fans with a rolling, subjective commentary. As AFL executive Gillon McLachlan indicated when the concept was announced in mid-2013, it was due to the drop in gate receipts and a lack of interest shown by the AFL’s stars to participate in the hybrid game that saw the All-Stars considered for the series.
Having been invited by the AFL Players Association to the last three camps – in Darwin, Sydney and Alice Springs – what is clear to me is that the All-Stars team concept has worked. Not only has it provided the local communities with the chance to see their AFL heroes in the flesh at schools and in town, but it has enabled the Indigenous players at the elite level to come together to chart their destiny. This is something the 1868 cricketers desperately craved and would never realise.
Some people were sceptical as to what the purpose of the tour to Ireland was meant to represent. Some came out and said it was reverse discrimination. One football fan on a popular sport website mocked:
2013 Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islanders v Ireland; 2014 Players of European Heritage v Ireland; 2017 Tattooed Players v Ireland; 2018 Players without an E in their Surname v Ireland.
The subtext this was simply: “why aren’t we taking out best side?” Even the Irish Gaelic Athletic Association wanted the very best players to play – not some second-string team. Indigenous football legend Barry Cable was reported to have been not entirely comfortable with the concept, saying:
We don’t need to put a wedge between them by doing something like that.

Carlton player Chris Yarran will represent the AFL’s Indigenous All-Stars team in Ireland. AAP/Joe Castro
Paradoxically, when I interviewed Cable for my book Legends (on the AFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century), he strongly indicated he would have loved to have played with the team considered to be the best Indigenous players from 1905 to 2005.
With names like Buddy Franklin, Steven Motlop, Mathew Stokes and Daniel Wells selected in the squad, we can be sure that this is no second-tier team. This side will be the pride of Australia and a team who will take their responsibilities as professional players and Australian citizens seriously.
I will be watching retiring pair Aaron Davey and Nathan Lovett-Murray closely. For Davey, playing with the Melbourne Demons – the club of Australia’s first sporting tragic, Tom Wills – is significant. Wills was meant to take the 1868 tour to England but did not. For Lovett-Murray of Essendon, the club to win the first VFL premiership and home to many great Indigenous players (such as Michael Long), the tour is significant. It will be a great way for them to round out their careers on a positive note.
Rather than lament who is missing, it would be good if we as Australians accepted this series for what it is, and simply enjoyed the chance to watch some of our best players – descendants of the oldest living culture in the world – strut their stuff.

Booing the messenger: Goodes is gone, but the confronting truth remains

For many AFL fans, the last week in September is the time of the year where we reflect on a season that could have been and dream of next year.
One thing we can be sure of is that we won’t see Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes on a football field again. This saddens me. I think the reason for this is the sense of unfinished business. What should have been the rounding out of a great career or even the saddling up for one last crack in 2016 now has a full stop on it. But even in retirement, questions about Goodes’ legacy and actions remain.
How the debate evolved
It has been a long and arduous journey since that fateful night in May 2013. Late in a game between Sydney and Collingwood, Goodes requested the removal of a girl from the stands for calling him an ape. A few days later, AFL powerbroker and Collingwood president Eddie McGuiure made gags about Goodes and King Kong. McGuire later admitted this amounted to racial vilification.
These incidents polarised people. They were forced to pick sides, as opposed to participating in a more sophisticated unpacking of an issue about societal vagaries regarding race politics in Australia as seen through the prism of sport.
But the heat really came on Goodes when he talked about race and prejudice in his 2014 Australian of the Year acceptance speech, and then again when he spoke of racism and invited Australians to see John Pilger’s film Utopia.
Australians did not like hearing this. Goodes began to be loudly booed at some games. Talkback and tabloid news fed on it and the white noise became amplified. Outrage grew.
Indigenous war cries became a “threat” as misinformation swirled. People were beyond angered. They were sick of the sight of Goodes. He played on.
Even the AFL’s commissioners were reportedly divided over Goodes. This perplexed me. Whenever race issues surfaced in the past, former CEO Andrew Demetriou was not just strident in denouncing them – his message was clear.
Goodes remained stoic as debate around him grew. Then came Round 17, 2015, and a game against West Coast at Subiaco. The booing was as loud as it has been. For Goodes it was too much. He retreated to family and friends. But not once did he complain.
Goodes returned and treated us to some great football. And in his last game against North Melbourne he made his teammate Rhyce Shaw the story as he too retired. Shaw was chaired off, but despite Goodes having made his mind up to retire he kept it quiet. He did not need the fuss made.
What now?
Goodes resisted overtures to attend Monday night’s Brownlow Medal ceremony and to have one last lap on the MCG on Grand Final day.
Some may have been happy that this uppity blackfella had left through the gift shop. Maybe some felt ripped off that they would not be able to give him one more razz as he went around the MCG in an open-top car. Maybe some felt saddened that they could not show their gratitude for all he gave to the game. Maybe some just felt indifference, believing that the bloke was just a whinger and a cheat and that they would not dignify that with anything.

Adam Goodes won his second Brownlow Medal in 2006. AAP/Sergio Dionisio
But what cannot be in dispute is Goodes’ dignified resistance. What he would do and when he would do it goes to the heart of his agency as a player, and his retirement would not be influenced by a team edict that he had adhered to for 16 seasons. Despite all the barbs and the bon mots, the decision to decline an invitation to the Brownlow – an award he won twice – was his and his alone.
If we can do anything that is remotely respectful it is to see Goodes’ class not just as an Aboriginal or a man, but as an Australian. Don’t think so? Just as Goodes allowed Shaw’s retirement to take place by sacrificing his own, can you imagine for a moment what it would be like if, as he was being chaired off, the booing was as loud as at Subiaco?
People in sports bars around the world would have turned to their Australian friends and said, “Why are they doing that?” The discussion would have to start again about the girl, about McGuire, about King Kong, about the war cry.
But the subtext and reality would be that Australians can’t handle Goodes or his message because that message is too real for many of us. As a consequence we would prefer to simply look away or tell the TV image of Goodes to “piss off”, as the stories we know align more with Bradman, Bondi and Beersheba.
Disagree? Then ask yourself this: how many of you took up Goodes’ invitation to see the Pilger documentary?
We should be thankful that Goodes played and that we were able to watch him. The question now is: who will step in to fill his shoes? And will we boo that person when their message contains something that we don’t want to hear?