• Commemorating Sir Doug. (Carlton media) (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The AFL’s annual round recognising and celebrating indigenous players and culture has been renamed to honour Sir Doug Nicholls, for his contribution to the code and reconciliation off the field.
Hannah Hollis

24 May 2016 - 4:30 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2016 - 10:33 AM

He died nearly 30 years ago and there’s a chance you’ve never of him, even though for some, he’s revered as a man who changed the course of Australia.

Collaborating with film maker Peter Dickson, the AFL today launched a short documentary about a Douglas Nicholls. He was the first Aboriginal person to be knighted and he served as the Governor of South Australia. He was devoted to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

AFL CEO Gillion McLachlan said: “He represented both the values of our game and epitomised the spirit of reconciliation”.

Sir Doug was an “extraordinary man”, according to film maker Peter Dickson who has crafted a 15 minute documentary about his life that will be released in instalments each day this week.

“When you think about it, it’s one of the best stories in Australian history” Dickson said.

Douglas Ralph Nicholls was born on December 6, 1906 on the Cumeroongunja mission in NSW on the Murray River near Barmah. His mother was a domestic helper and his father was a farm hand. Sir Doug was one of five children.

He was educated up until the age of three. In those days schooling was provided until then, with strict religious principles were enforced.

When he was eight years old, the police came to take the children away. His sister was one of them. She was put in the car and he, clutching at a crowbar tried to stop it.

Development into an athlete

He was an athlete, a runner, a boxer and most famously a footballer.  He was the only Aboriginal player playing in the then, Victorian Football Association (VFA), now called the Victorian Football League (VFL).

He was originally recruited to play for Carlton but faced severe discrimination. Carlton’s CEO Steven Trigg held an official acknowledgement of Sir Doug, addressing his family members to highlight the mistreatment be endured at the club.

 “Unfortunately due to certain individuals’ behaviour at that time, Sir Doug was simply not given the opportunity to flourish, as his talent and his character should ordinarily dictate,” Trigg said. 

“He was excluded and left out due to his Aboriginality and it’s those actions by club officials that bring us here today to acknowledge our past.”

Sir Doug found a home in the team of Fitzroy and over six seasons played 54 games, was named the clubs ‘best and fairest player’ twice and represented Victoria.

He played until knee trouble forced him out in 1937.


Sir Doug Nicholls used his football profile as a launching pad for greatness.

He turned to religion after his mother’s death and became a priest and social worker for indigenous people, helping those who were trapped by social issues like alcohol abuse and gambling.

He became the secretary of the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) when William Cooper retired in 1940.

Sir Doug was also enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces, albeit briefly, when he was discharged on companionate leave after just 6 months. 

He initiated ‘Aboriginal Sunday’ a time where aboriginal people could protest the events of January 26. The annual event evolved, it was moved to July and later became known as National Aborigines and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week.

Nicholls was appointed MBE (1957) and OBE (1968) and then knighted (1972).

Four years later in 1976, he became the 28th Governor of South Australia.

This weekend every club will wear special indigenous-themed jerseys.

Round 10 of the 2016 season kicks off on Friday, May 27, when the Sydney Swans host North Melbourne at the SCG. This weekend marks the chance to admire a pioneering footballer of great ability and reflect on reconciliation, perhaps a timely opportunity in the wake of the treatment of Adam Goodes.

The full film on Sir Doug will be published on the AFL website on Saturday May 28.