It was a sunny Melbourne afternoon at the Collingwood Magpies home ground, Victoria Park on Saturday 17 April, 1993.
The early 90s was a very different time with different values; there were little to no Indigenous actors on Australian television, and Arnott’s still made Golliwog biscuits. But positive change was in the air for blackfellas. Newly elected Prime Minister, Paul Keating had just delivered his famous “Redfern Speech”, Native Title legislation was tabled in Australian Parliament for the first time, Vogue Australia had its first Indigenous cover model, Elaine George, and Archie Roach had just released the iconic single Walking Into Doors which raised awareness about domestic spousal abuse.
Also, aptly, 1993 was the International Year of World Indigenous Peoples, with its prime objective being to strengthen Indigenous rights, while developing education and health of Indigenous peoples.
The [AFL] had started ruthlessly undertaking the expansion policy that would eventually make it the premier national sporting competition in Australia
The AFL, too, was in the throes of change. Having just rebranded from the Victorian-centric “VFL” to the more national “AFL” three years earlier, the organisation had started ruthlessly undertaking the expansion policy that would eventually make it the premier national sporting competition in Australia. In 1993, the Fremantle Dockers were announced as a new team (to join the league in ‘95). There was also talk of a second South Australian team, the Port Adelaide Magpies (who later became the Port Adelaide Power) joining their fellow South Australian brethren the Adelaide Crows. The AFL’s board and executives would soon realise that in their ambition to become national and be Australia’s biggest code, they would then have a real responsibility to eliminate some of the more unsavory aspects of the game, like the racism that existed by supporters on the outer, and by players on the field.
Nicky Winmar, the boy from Pingelly
Nicky Winmar was a footballer of very exceptional ability from Pingelly, in Western Australia’s wheatbelt. He was drafted to the WAFL to play for South Fremantle by “Mad” Mal Brown (who, ironically, later was criticised for making racist remarks himself). Winmar immediately impressed in the WAFL playing for South Fremantle, kicking 98 goals in 58 games primarily in a wing/midfielder role. It was an effort not unnoticed by the St Kilda Saints, who quickly snared him to play in the then VFL, in 1987. Winmar had an attractive flair about his game that was undeniable – his run and carry coupled with his instinctual game smarts and willingness to work hard to achieve an elite fitness level made him an amazing prospect for St. Kilda.
Fast forward to 1993, where Winmar had been in the VFL/AFL system for 6 years, and presumably thought he had seen it all. But this match on 17 April was particularly vicious and uncompromising. Fierce cross town rivals St. Kilda were the visitors to Victoria Park and two players from the Saints were on fire – Aboriginal duo, Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar. The Saints had a knack of taking tight games from the Pies, including an Elimination Final in 1992 by 8 points where the Pies were knocked out of the premiership race. To say tensions were high is an understatement.
“We got spat on, people would throw beers and stuff. I hated it, I was very emotionally upset.”
Being a Collingwood home game, the crowd was overwhelmingly made up of Pies supporters, who were especially ugly toward star players, McAdam and Winmar. “We got spat on, people would throw beers and stuff. I hated it, I was very emotionally upset,” Nicky says in an upcoming documentary series, Noongar Footy Magic.
McAdam too shared his memories, telling The Age in 2013 about suffering racial abuse on the field that day, “I don’t want to say what it was specifically, but it was full-on. I’ll just say it was racial and it was bad – it was terrible”
After the final siren, which St Kilda ended up besting Collingwood by 22 points in a high scoring, free flowing, yet tough encounter (15.14 104 to 18.18 126), Winmar felt like he had to make a final statement to the relentless racist Collingwood supporters. “We were getting called names and you don’t like hearing those kind of words,” Nicky late recalled. “People forget that words have a big impact. They can lift a person or destroy a person. So that day I responded by saying to those people, and I still say it today ‘I’m black and I’m proud’."
“People forget that words have a big impact. They can lift a person or destroy a person. So that day I responded by saying to those people, and I still say it today ‘I’m black and I’m proud’."
The exact moment Nicky shouted, “I’m black and I’m proud” he lifted his guernsey to expose his chest and stomach to the Collingwood crowd, and pointed to his black skin. This was famously captured by photographer Wayne Ludbey and published in The Age the next day on the front page.
Given that racism was so ingrained into the lives of Aboriginal Australians, and was widely accepted in AFL culture at the time, Nicky, still a humble small town boy from WA, was unaware of the defiant stand he had just made against racial injustice. He was unaware of the weight it held for Aboriginal people, other Australians who’ve experienced prejudice, and unaware that AFL writers, mainstream media and the public would be so outraged at the level of abuse Winmar and McAdam had endured. Winmar was surprised to see his gesture even made it to the papers, let alone the front page. “I looked at the paper and I said, wow, did that get into the paper!?,” he recalls.
However, such a moment did not turn into “yesterday’s news” and today, it still stands as a heroic anti-racism statement in the face of unrepentant racism. Winmar's gesture has now become one of the most important moments in AFL history, and in Australian sports history. This, along with other political demonstrations like Michael Long’s official complaint against Collingwood’s Damian Monkhorst two years later, helped the AFL realise they had to create a racial vilification code, and one that was based around ‘zero tolerance’. Nicky’s stand challenged the accepted racism in footy, and in wider society, particularly toward Aboriginal people.
AFL: some goals for tolerance, but many misses too
25 years later, with these Codes of Conduct, the AFL community still disappointingly struggles with racism and prejudice. The Adam Goodes ‘Ape’ fiasco and his perhaps sad exit from the game in 2015, is a massive stain on the game. Last year an Aboriginal women’s player in Western Australia was allegedly called “a monkey” and a “smelly black dog”. In the JLT series this year, Port Adelaide and West Coast Eagles supporters had to be separated at Leederville Oval after the final siren when one Port Adelaide supporter allegedly repeatedly called opposition West Coast fans “n*****s”. Aboriginal players aren’t the only non-white targets. A fan attending a Hawthorn/North Melbourne match at Launceston in 2014 was ejected for directing racist slurs at Majak Daw, a player of African origin. And black, Brazilian-born Héritier Lumumba experiences of being called "chimp" by his teammates.
While these deplorable instances of racism in football should be recognised as a product of wider society that the game is apart of, but nevertheless, the AFL shouldn’t be a passenger in this issue, throw their arms up and say "it’s too hard". They should be leaders in this area, and there is still room for improvement, there's a lot to suggest they're trying to do just that.
With the AFL being the gatekeepers for a game with a long history of excluding, exploiting and preventing Aboriginal people, to change in the culture of the footy community to make it truly inclusive and celebrative of racial diversity is a massive task. However, as it stands, the organisation have done well in promoting Indigenous culture with Sir Doug Nicholls round, and Dreamtime at the G’, both being a fantastic spectacle. But these events are merely condensed into one week a year and to really make a difference the AFL must start bringing in this Indigenous culture into every round of the year.
Perhaps a good place to start would be Welcome to Country ceremonies for every game, not just the ones in Sir Doug Nicholls round; Start bringing in Aboriginal people into the game in every level; and some type of mandatory Aboriginal liaison/mentor support for players experiencing culture shock of having to move away from country and family. The AFL Indigenous Framework, released in 2013, aims to foster mutual responsibility and mutual benefit between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, however it relies on the classic “us and them” paradigm, where promoting Indigenous inclusion within the wider AFL framework/machine should be happening. Its well meaning, but it needs more practical outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
While there is still work to do, without Nicky Winmar’s heroic stand 25 years ago, the national dialogue that was the impetus for bringing the AFL out of the racial vilification doldrums would have never happened. We are all better off for it.
Adam Manovic is a Goreng Goreng/Latji Latji man, father, creative producer, and host of 'The Podcast We Had To Have'. He writes, tweets and podcasts about AFL, sport, pop culture and politics. Follow Adam @AdamManovic
Marngrook Footy Show is on every Wednesday at 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34)
Noongar Footy Magic will air on NITV Wednesday, 30 May 8.00pm on NITV (Ch. 34)