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Aboriginal football and the Australian game.

Abstract: This paper introduces an Australian Research Council research project currently being undertaken at the remote Aboriginal community of Papunya in the Northern Territory. The project, led by Barry Judd and Tim Butcher from RMIT University, explores the role organised Australian Football plays in community wellbeing in a remote community. While mainstream narratives of sport view wellbeing as a natural outcome of participation in organised competition, this project critically interrogates the positive outcomes assumed in this relationship. The authors argue that the promise of Australian Football to transform the lives of remote community residents in positive ways is largely false and that participation in mainstream competition in Alice Springs may be socially and economically detrimental to the wellbeing of the people of Papunya. The paper questions the place that Aboriginal people occupy in Australian Football and suggests that cultural identity has only a tenuous place in the sport. It explores this theme in the context of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or 'Intervention', which has positioned remote community residents as unwanted outsiders in Alice Springs and other 'white' spaces in the Northern Territory. It further argues that these issues are of national significance and that the treatment of Australian Football League star Adam Goodes underlines sport's limitations in delivering wellbeing to Aboriginal peoples and their communities.


The current political rhetoric of the Australian Government, widespread intolerance of the performance of culture by a champion Aboriginal footballer during the 2015 Australian Football League (AFL) Indigenous Round and settler vigilantism in Alice Springs force us to once again question the extent to which the non-Aboriginal public understands, acknowledges and respects the place of Aboriginal culture and identity in Australia. More significantly, young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must surely be asking themselves what place they and their cultures have in contemporary Australian society.

In April 2015 we commenced a three-year Australian Research Council funded research project, Wellbeing not Winning, to investigate the relationship between the Australian Football team that represents the remote Aboriginal community of Papunya in the Northern Territory and the league organisation in which it plays, the Central Australian Football League (CAFL). Our project, initiated by the community, is multifaceted and multidisciplinary and is designed to investigate a number of aspects of how people living in this remote community came to embrace Australian Football in such an all-encompassing way that the Australian game now plays a critical role in informing their lived cultural realities and identities as Aboriginal people.

The research will retrace the introduction of the sport into the Papunya region of Central Australia and map changes in the way Papunya footballers have played the game from the 1960s, when bush scratch matches were first arranged with neighbouring Aboriginal communities, to the first decade of this century, when Papunya teams began to play in the highly structured and regulated Alice Springs-based CAFL. As a study of organisational engagement with cultural difference, our project will bring new insights to the business of Australian Football and how its formal organisational structures might handle cross-cultural relationships with Aboriginal peoples in ways that deliver improved outcomes for the sport and for the Aboriginal people who play and support the Australian game. As researchers we are particularly interested to investigate the extent to which the organisation of Australian Football as a key institutional structure of civil society might successfully negotiate the cultural divide that exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, particularly in remote Australia.

During visits to Papunya in the past four years we have observed much to suggest that the people of this remote Aboriginal community have made significant economic and cultural sacrifices in order to participate in the only competitive league football available to them. Few football clubs are required to undertake the travel the Papunya footballers willingly endure. Papunya plays both its home and away matches in Alice Springs; its football team travels almost 500 kilometres to and from matches over some of the worst roads in Australia. Although Papunya is world renowned as the epicentre of the Western Desert art movement, arguably the greatest twentieth century contribution Australia made to world culture, the community remains a place of relative social and economic disadvantage. The absence of paid employment, combined with the high prices associated with remote location living, means that the economic cost of participating in competitive Australian Football are disproportionately high for the people of Papunya. In a community in which the price of fuel is close to two dollars a litre, just getting to the match on any given weekend requires the community to make a substantial financial commitment. Many individual team members therefore choose to stay in Alice Springs with extended family members during the football season.

Competing in league football imposes other costs on the people of Papunya that are much more subtle and, for outsiders, perhaps less easily recognised. While the community of Papunya offers the Aboriginal people who call it home a safe cultural space where the law of Luritja and Pintupi Country continues to regulate social relations and maintain the order of things, in Alice Springs it is non-Aboriginal law that applies. Papunya elders speak of Alice Springs law as 'the law of the town'. Elders have come to the conclusion that the law of the town has had compounding negative effects on their people and their community.

In recent times the law of the town has been reshaped in fundamental ways by the Northern Territory Intervention, a policy agenda first imposed by the federal government in 2007. The various measures introduced by the Intervention explicitly targeted Aboriginal people living in remote communities. For example, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), which provides legal protection against discrimination on the basis of race to all Australian citizens, was suspended in respect of Aboriginal people living in these communities. This measure enabled the federal government to introduce new racially targeted and discriminatory restrictions on the freedom of Aboriginal people living in remote communities, including increased levels of surveillance. Although the legal protections of the Racial Discrimination Act have since been reinstituted, the Intervention continues to have negative consequences for Aboriginal people who live in the Northern Territory.

We believe one of the most important consequences of the Intervention has been to reconfirm the old colonial narratives of Australian nation and citizenship that have been worked to reposition Aboriginal people who live in remote communities as non-citizens and outsiders in their own Country. Such attitudes are regularly expressed in Alice Springs, often in the context of public debate. Earlier this year the local newspaper, the Centralian Advocate (McCue 2015), ran a story that demonstrates the renewed popularity of public narratives that position Aboriginal people as non-citizens who have no place in towns like Alice Springs. The newspaper report told of how a former member of a Northern Ireland paramilitary group, recently arrived in Australia, had rallied townsfolk to form a vigilante group. The group was being formed, according to its leader, to ensure troublesome Aboriginal youths who visit Alice Springs from remote communities are no longer allowed to congregate in public places, thereby mitigating the risk of property damage and disturbances of the peace. According to the vigilantes of Alice Springs, Aboriginal youths 'have no business being in their town'.

As people who have become perceived as outsiders, the law of the town has not been particularly kind to the young Aboriginal men who represent Papunya in the CAFL. Because many young and promising Papunya footballers are required to play in a place where Aboriginal culture and identity are subject to heightened levels of state and community surveillance and considered alien by a significant and vocal number of non-Aboriginal townspeople, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have become caught up in the bad things that happen to Aboriginal youth in Alice Springs. Elders at Papunya have long complained that the law of the town is turning good footballers into 'good criminals' as young men from their community are sent to jail as a result of what, in the main, are minor offences. Recognising these issues to be broader than sport, yet a consequence of sporting participation, our research is interested to investigate the extent to which these consequences of the Intervention have influenced how Aboriginal people are positioned within the organisation of competitive Australian Football in Central Australia. In particular, we will explore the extent to which the cultural traditions and identities of Aboriginal footballers living in remote communities are regarded as alien and external to the cultural norms and sporting values that operate in the organisation of competitive Australian Football in the CAFL. A significant research question posed by our project will ask if the law of the town, which positions Aboriginal people as non-citizens in Alice Springs, also holds true in the context of organised Australian Football and how teams that represent remote Aboriginal communities like Papunya are positioned by non-Aboriginal organisers of sporting competitions. Put somewhat differently, we seek to investigate whether football clubs that represent remote Aboriginal communities in the operation of organised Australian Football are accorded the same respect, care, and procedural and administrative justice as Alice Springs-based clubs that predominantly represent non-Aboriginal townsfolk. Such questions are particularly relevant in respect to the extent to which coaches and administrators of remote Aboriginal community clubs are provided opportunities to contribute to CAFL decision-making processes.

The difference represented by remote community football teams requires non-Aboriginal sporting organisations to consider more than just procedural and administrative fairness in seeking to build and maintain effective and mutually beneficial relationships with Aboriginal Australia. Cultural difference itself needs to be first recognised and then acknowledged as having a place within competitive Australian Football. In recent decades a small number of writers have observed that Aboriginal people have brought new ways of playing Australian Football to the game and have both added new excitement, dynamism and energy to the sport and, in some respects, transformed it into something greater than it was before. Martin Flanagan (2003, 2006) has spoken about the Aboriginal influence in Australian Football as bringing with it a different perception of time and space where the understanding between Aboriginal team mates appears to be magical or the outcome of telepathic powers of communication. Nathan Buckley (cited in Flanagan 2003) believes that the skills that enabled him to become a champion in the sport were greatly enhanced through his experience of playing with and against Aboriginal players in the Northern Territory Football League. Living and working in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Brian McCoy (2008) observed how Australian Football played in the remote communities across the region emphasised speed and separation between the players. In the Kimberley, Aboriginal people play Australian Football in a way that keeps tackling and body contact to a minimum. The cadences of Aboriginal styles of playing football speak of cultural traditions and worldviews that are largely unknown to non-Aboriginal Australia.

In many parts of Central and Northern Australia, church missions introduced and promoted the sport. Some did so as a mode of gaining acceptance for the project of racial and cultural assimilation of the Aborigines; others did so because equality on the football field spoke of the equality the Bible says exists between all human beings. In most regions where Australian Football is played by Aboriginal peoples today, the Australian game overlays older pre-existing Indigenous forms of football that are collectively known by the Wurundjeri name marn-grook, which translates as 'ball-foot'. In Central and Northern Australia the style of play continues to reflect the invisible ties of kinship that determine proper relationships between individuals in all aspects of life, including those on the football field. These histories mean that Australian Football is so deeply entangled with Aboriginal cultural traditions and identities that the sport exists today as a living cultural artefact of Aboriginal Australia. Regardless of ongoing debates about the historical origins of Australian Football, the fact is that many Aboriginal people today believe that the game belongs to them.

The existence of what might be called an Aboriginal football ethic is clearly apparent in our study of football at Papunya. Papunya play Australian Football in a fast and open style characterised by skilful and extremely fast attacking ball movement across the ground. Style, displays of skilful football and community participation seemingly matter much more than winning. The notion that you play football to win at all costs appears to be an alien and immoral concept to the way Aboriginal football is played in Central Australia. The fact that keeping accurate score sheets during a game and access to functioning score boards are viewed as non-essential by many remote communities across the region is indicative of the different meanings and understandings that Aboriginal people attach to the sport. Grounded in cultural traditions and attitudes thousands of years old, the Papunya way of playing football stands in stark contrast to the way football clubs based in Alice Springs approach the sport. Perhaps unsurprisingly, football clubs based in town seek to emulate the style of play prevalent in the elite AFL competition. For these clubs the approach is characteristically non-Aboriginal. Football matches are played to be won and skilful and fast attacking play is often frowned upon as high risk and unnecessary. Instead, like in the AFL, the emphasis is on executing set plays. It is the ability of the team to act in an organised fashion to execute the coach's plans that matters. Such game plans are generally built upon a strong defensive approach in which high tackle counts are used as a key indicator of footballing excellence. In this approach to playing Australian Football it matters not if the win is pretty or ugly; winning is all that matters!

It has been argued that since the 1990s Australian Football, through the national leadership of the sport's peak organisational body, the AFL, has indeed moved to both recognise and accommodate an Aboriginal football ethic. The AFL is widely celebrated in non-Aboriginal media as a leading civil institution that has been at the forefront of Aboriginal reconciliation for the past two decades. Since moving to ban on-field racial vilification via the formal legal mechanism of AFL Rule 30, the AFL has done much to accommodate Aboriginal people within the Australian game. The longstanding contribution of Aboriginal players to the sport is now showcased in the Dreamtime at the 'G match between Essendon and Richmond, a match that has become a premier event in the annual league fixture. This match now coincides with the annual Indigenous Round that enables all AFL clubs to celebrate and showcase on-field Aboriginal talent and publicly associate their brands with the aims of reconciliation, cultural inclusivity and cross-cultural understanding. For the past decade the AFL has been able to back up these symbolic acts of recognition with statistics that show that players from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are significantly over-represented in the elite level of the sport. This is a claim that few other Australian institutions, including government, can make. The message the AFL has successfully promoted to Aboriginal Australia is that the sport offers a viable and highly lucrative financial career path. If you are an Aboriginal kid and the footy you play makes the grade you too can become the next Michael Long, Buddy Franklin or Adam Goodes.

Despite such claims we remain highly sceptical about the true extent to which organised Australian Football has been able to accommodate an Aboriginal football ethic that is different in style as well as in the meanings and understandings this attributes to the sport. In the context of our research to develop a regional study of Aboriginal community and competitive sports, such scepticism is duly warranted. Although the AFL rightly claims that players from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are now over-represented in the elite competition, only one of those footballers has ever been recruited from a remote Aboriginal community. The player, Liam Jurrah, a Warlpiri man from the community of Yuendumu, was required to overcome significant practical and cultural barriers in order to compete at AFL level. His AFL career was cut short when cultural obligations to his community clashed with his obligations as a professional league footballer: no suitable accommodation could be found between the two. Jurrah's experiences suggest that the AFL fairytale that is sold and willingly consumed by Aboriginal Australia will rarely, if ever, come true for the Aboriginal footballers of Papunya. The geographic obstacles and social consequences associated with playing regular representational football in Alice Springs, being selected to represent the Northern Territory via the NT Thunder team and consequently being seen by AFL recruiters are immense. And cultural differences mean the way Aboriginal people from remote communities play football is not recognised by those recruiters as being well suited to the way the AFL defines the Australian game. Location, poverty and cultural difference mean that the barriers to success at the highest level of the sport that presently confront Aboriginal players who live in remote communities are significant, perhaps insurmountable.

Our doubts about the ability of competitive Australian Football to successfully accommodate Aboriginal football and its ethic extend beyond the unfulfilled promises the sport makes to Aboriginal players who live in remote communities. We also seek to question the very rationale of such claims that in respect to remote Aboriginal Australia function to reconfirm old power relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. In this context the organisation of Australian Football through the CAFL engages with Aboriginal communities in a search for 'raw' football talent to be extracted and sent to Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth--the epicentres of the sports powerbase--to undergo further development with the refined product ready for mass national consumption in the elite AFL competition. This model, which might be termed neocolonial, is highly problematic and does little to address how the playing of Australian Football within remote Aboriginal communities can be supported, developed and grown. One of the most troubling aspects of the existing relationship between remote Aboriginal communities and the organisation of Australian Football is that a model that seeks to take the best talent from the bush--a model that is designed to remove the best Aboriginal footballers from their communities --may also have a significant if unintended consequence in the removal of future leadership capacity available to remote communities. In our view this model limits opportunities for future leadership potential to be fully realised. Removing young men from their home communities in order to realise the dream of a professional football career in the city severely limits the ability of elders to mentor youth who have been identified as future leaders of their people, their communities, their Country. Indeed, elders find ways to limit community member engagements with Alice Springs, and team members talk of not seeking conventional football careers. Instead, they seek forms of engagement that offer opportunities to pursue their cultural obligations as well as potential career opportunities.

The rational of the neo-colonial model of Australian Football is clearly apparent when the sporting infrastructure of Papunya is compared to that of Alice Springs, Darwin or Melbourne. The red earth oval that is the Papunya football ground is worlds away from the neatly manicured turf of Traeger Park, CAFL headquarters in Alice Springs, let alone the hallowed arena of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The differential between resourcing the sport at its multiple tiers is indicative of a model that does little to consider sporting participation in remote Aboriginal Australia as a mechanism to support whole-of-community wellbeing by strengthening, not diminishing, intergenerational relationships. Our preliminary observations of the relationship between Aboriginal football at Papunya and the organisation of Australian Football suggest the need to explore a fundamental shift in the way this relationship is framed by the governing body of the sport. An important part of our research project will consider possibilities that the relationship between Australian Football and remote Aboriginal communities might be reconfigured in a way that seeks to develop football in a whole-of-community approach in which wellbeing becomes a priority--where the role of organised football is not limited to the extraction of the best talent, but where the development of cohorts of community-level footballers enhances, encourages and nurtures the capacity for future leadership through participation in competitive Australian Football.

While our project will provide an in-depth exploration of these issues in respect to the specific sporting relationship that exists between Papunya and the CAFL, our research has implications that extend beyond Central Australia. Important questions about the extent to which an Aboriginal football ethic can be accommodated and, indeed, celebrated by those who control the organisation of Australian Football lies at the heart of our investigation. Such questions remain highly contentious and open to debate. The recent controversy sparked by the decision of Adam Goodes to celebrate a goal with an Aboriginal 'war dance' during the opening match of the 2015 AFL Indigenous Round suggests that the place of Aboriginal football in the Australian game is far from secure. Goodes's innocuous act in stating his on-field presence as an Aboriginal footballer proud of his identity and his place within a culture that contains the world's oldest continuous traditions caused a public backlash that underlines the discomfort non-Aboriginal Australia feels in the presence of Aboriginal culture and the difference this represents. Goodes is a champion of the Australian game and the most highly decorated Aboriginal man to ever play Australian Football in the AFL. In 2014 Goodes was named Australian of the Year, a position he used to advocate for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups in Australia today. Goodes is booed by significant sections of the Australian Football public not because his play is unduly rough or unfair but, rather, because he points to a national history of Aboriginal oppression and its contemporary consequences in a way that makes many non-Aboriginal people extremely uneasy. The public is uncomfortable because Goodes asks them to look beyond the fairytale that elite Aboriginal players in the AFL suggest, to consider life at communities like Papunya, and to ask why Aboriginal cultures and identities in remote Australia (and everywhere else for that matter) are subject to relentless attack by politicians, journalists and significant sections of the Australian public.

Our experience of Papunya has been of a community that is proud of its many achievements in art, music and sport. Proud, too, that culture, law and language remain strong. Papunya is a community where elders like the longstanding football coach Sid Anderson and Sammy Butcher, former member of the legendary Warumpi Band, use their authority and experience to encourage and mentor youth to develop their talents. While non-Aboriginal politicians and media commentators speak of such communities as being 'unviable' and 'life-style choices' undeserving of state support through service and infrastructure provision, the people of Papunya get on with the business of day-to-day life and, through playing football, celebrate what it means to live on Country. Remote Aboriginal Australia will persist into the future and questions about the place of such communities in both the Australian game and Australian society more broadly are not about to go away. The esteemed historian Geoffrey Blainey (2015), speaking at a public forum held recently, said that perhaps the greatest challenge facing Australia since 1788 has been to find ways to successfully bridge and accommodate the cultural difference that exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. For this reason we believe our research and other projects like it remain critical to building a better, more inclusive and dynamic Australia in the future: an Australia where Aboriginal football is truly at home in the Australian game.


Blainey, Geoffrey 2015 The story of Australia's people volume 1: the rise and fall of ancient Australia, Viking, Melbourne.

Flanagan, Martin 2003 The game in time of war, Picador Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

--2006 The call, One Day Hill, Melbourne.

McCoy, Brian 2008 Holding men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

McCue, Fred 2015 'Alice Springs police monitoring armed paramilitary group', Centralian Advocate, 7 May, < alice-springs-police-monitoring-armed-paramilitary-group/ story-fnkOblzt-1227342373321> accessed 17 November 2015.

Barry Judd

School of Global, Urban and Social Studies

RMIT University, Melbourne

Barry Judd is Professor of Indigenous Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is a member of AIATSIS and the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network. Barry is a leading scholar on the topic of Aboriginal participation in Australian sports and what this means in terms of defining the nation, shaping citizenship and narratives of Indigenous belonging and exclusion.


Tim Butcher

Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work School of Management, RMIT

University, Melbourne

Tim Butcher is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at RMIT University. His research interests focus on the organisation of space and its effects on identity, belonging and our sense of place. His published work as an organisational ethnographer covers a broad range of people in different organisational contexts, including remote Indigenous communities, skilled machinists in aerospace manufacturing, supply chain managers and co-workers. Tim is a member of the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) and the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM) and a Panasonic Trust Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, in recognition of his studies in sustainability.

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Title Annotation:RESEARCH REPORT
Author:Judd, Barry; Butcher, Tim
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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