As Adam Goodes was resolving, as is his right, not to ignore an offensive comment from the crowd at last night’s match at the MCG, commentators of all stripes were in turn arranging themselves along the spectrum in their reactions to the drama. Those of us who are gluttonous spectators of media and sport watched haplessly as the inevitably stupid and unrepresentative rushed to comment. We ourselves rushed to make our own comment and to reach understanding of the girl’s role and the league’s subsequent reaction.
I’m now watching the pre-game entertainment before my own team plays Essendon and sighing inwardly as the panel expresses earnestly their more than usually inane sense of the world, while Icehouse’s Great Southern Land plays on the PA. On the field some ceremonious words are spoken, the meaning of which is lost on most who watch it.
But while these gallant efforts are somewhat clumsy and imperfect (good and bad: I can in fact appreciate the aesthetics of Christine Anu singing Yothu Yindi’s Treaty; but I scoff at the channel 7 camera crew in the Tigers’ rooms lingering on four players – Houli, Nahas, Grigg & Martin – because each has tan-coloured skin, while none is Indigenous) I think it is worth remembering not simply what Indigenous players mean to the AFL, or to the teams’ supporters, or to the game itself, but what football means to Indigenous people.
In Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land football is played at a dusty ground in the town’s centre, a look-away from an idyllic seascape. From the ground it is a minute’s walk to a slender beach and palms waving; a noisy crowd of cockies in a backyard ornamental; a cluster of homes and a provincial school; and an art gallery which sells items of indigenous art and culture. On the ground some very tired teenagers play, the August day a comfortable 26°. They’re begging for rotations as they limp from the ground. The year is 2003. The coach, ex-AFL, now employed at ATSIC, is working with boys he admits in a quiet off-side are hungover from the night before, can’t come to mid-week training as they’re hours’ travel away in remote country, and are going to be totally and miserably pummelled by the bigger, larger, faster boys from the mining town Nhulunbuy. And they are.
Under the trees sit the players’ families, watching and chatting, from a distance seeming totally immobile while their infants and little ones play at the boundary in children’s mystic games. This is a solid and steadfastly observed weekend activity – local footy. Several leaders, local family elders, business people and residents of note find some opportunity during the game to make an appearance.
With my camera out I’ve become an irresistible target. Kids, mostly the players’ friends, jumble in front of my lens with their fingers and hands contorted into gestures which mean nothing to me but, I know, mimic those of hip hop and R&B music artists from America, which also mean nothing to me. The team has been gifted their strip, and they don’t bring with them the support team as the opposition do, who have eskies of ice, fresh packs of water bottles and cut fruit. The game is a rout. The scoreboard is over the other side of the ground, too puny for me to discern the degree of damage, but the coach never loses his sense of resignation.
What’s more revealing than the footy score is the picture painted by the people around me in their conversations – ATSIC is the champion of many believers in these parts; Michael Long is like a god to the kids who play; American music is the bread and butter of the students who attend the tiny schools. ATSIC because it responds generously to resident appeals for luxuries such as garbage disposal, quite beyond its brief; Michael Long because he exudes ability and success and wisdom; American music because it’s the ultimate expression of luxury and wealth and beauty.
What the football, and the dream of football, offers is a cohesion and a shared experience – the same thing it offers for every small community. But for Indigenous people it also offers a particular identity embedded in the national pastime, and a genuine local experience. In the Indigenous football history there are Norm Smith medals, Brownlows, playing dynasties and iconic images and stories woven amongst the everyday. And while some might lament the perception of tokenism in the Dreamtime round, or not fully share in the emotion of our first people’s connection to our fine game, the game in fact belongs to Indigenous people in an enormous way. It belongs to kids who live it, kids who’ve played it, the Indigenous influence on the very origins of the game itself, and the homespun realities that bring those boys & men miles from home to play.