• Lance "Buddy" Franklin of the Sydney Swans (AAP)
Are using terms such as "magic" and "freakish" to describe Indigenous AFL players minimising their hard earned skills?
By
Adam Manovic

30 May 2018 - 1:02 PM  UPDATED 31 May 2018 - 3:22 PM

Dane Rampe gathers it and kicks it up the ground. Dan Hanneberry takes a strong contested mark in front of Cameron Guthrie.

Very reliable is Dan Hanneberry – he’s working hard today with 20 disposals so far.

Hanneberry kicks it to Jarad McViegh.

McViegh marks on his chest, turns, and leans into a drop punt and passes it in to FRANKLIN!

Franklin takes a look, runs around the man on the mark AND SNAPS A FREAKISH BANNANA FROM 45 METRES OUT! YES IT’S HOME! BOOM! HE’S MAGICAL! BUDDY DOES IT AGAIN, DON’T YOU LOVE HIM?

Over the last few years, Sydney Swans supporters would be familiar with the above commentary. Passionate remarks that describe a of a passage of play by an excited caller, marveling at Lance “Buddy” Franklin’s abilities on the football field.

From the first half of Franklin’s career, Hawthorn supporters too would have heard commentators laud his  “magical”, “freakish”, and seemingly superhuman athleticism, as he pulls off “miracle” moments on the field. The same descriptors placed on fellow Indigenous star Cyril Rioli, too.

White players are less likely to be “magical” or “freakish” because they are, by default, normalised by their fellow white peers.

Of course, these are well-meaning sentiments that are generated by the awe of the athletic feats on the field. The problem is that this type of discourse, although positive on the surface, leaves open the ideological door to speak of Aboriginal players (and people of colour in general) in terms of ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ that are attributed simply to their race, as opposed to their white brethren who aren’t classified in this overly simplistic way.

 

Social Darwinism in modern AFL

This is classic ‘otherisng’. As discussed in J Willis’s Tangled up in white: The perpetuation of whiteness in Australian national identity, which states, “the concept of ‘whiteness’ is very entrenched in contemporary Australian national identity”. White players are less likely to be “magical” or “freakish” because they are, by default, normalised by their fellow white peers (both, on the field and in society). And the concern here is that when Indigenous players are treated through a cultural and racial lens —a white cultural and racial lens— it ultimately keeps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders down the bottom of an Australian hierarchy, which they have been since colonialisation.

Most AFL Fans probably don’t even question this language from praising commentators and journalists, because, everyone knows that Indigenous players have a special X-factor that is innate to them, right?

Profiling Indigenous players as “magical”  points to and feeds into popular stereotypes of racial difference, harking back to days of Social Darwinism.

But in fact, they don’t. The reality is that this very regular type of profiling on Indigenous football players that seems positive and complimentary on the surface is rather racist at its core.

When focusing on a preconceived ability that Indigenous players allegedly possess, it discounts endless hours of hard work that these players put in, day in, day out to survive and succeed at an elite sporting level. Profiling Indigenous players as “magical” points to and feeds into popular stereotypes of racial difference, harking back to days of Social Darwinism, a type of scientific racism which broadly stated that Indigenous people are savages and will eventually be bred out by a more “civilized” white race. It feeds into a school of thought that ultimately makes it harder for Indigenous/black players in this industry, as they are seemingly being judged by a different set of rules.

This preconceived ability was a theory publicly voiced by 1930s US Olympic coach and “Maker of Champions”, Dean Cromwell, who, when asked about the success of African American athletes he responded,

“Blacks are well fitted emotionally for the sort of brief, terrific effort which sprints and jumps required… It was not long ago, that his [African American’s] ability to sprint and jump was a life and death matter to him in the jungle”

Cromwell, however, had his detractors and was eventually proven wrong. Anthropologists such as W. Montague Cobb noted, (after taking measurements and studying the bodies of athletes such as Olympic gold medalist, African American Jessie Owens) that superior sport performances are primarily not biological, but more to do with psychological and sociological factors. He concluded Jessie Owens did not even posess “The negroid type of calf, foot and heel bone” and that black athletes, just like their white counterparts were simulated by a “desire to emulate their predecessors”. However, decades later these stereotypes persist for today's Indigenous athletes.

 

"The Krakouer Magic"

Krakouer Brothers, Phil and Jim, were Noongar footballers from Western Australia who were drafted to North Melbourne to play in the VFL in 1982. Often credited with their “Krakouer magic” on the field, many in the industry bought into a notion that Aboriginal players had some kind of mysterious, supernatural, almost otherworldly football powers. Even back then, when the VFL was still relatively amateur and not the sports science-minded, professional endeavor it is today, you had to be extremely fit to play the game. AFL fans and professionals ignored the Krakouers process and relentless training methods over the years, and instead preferred to explain their abilities as some type of special innate skill that was god given. Being brothers, this biological narrative somehow seemed more plausible, in the way that twin studies define 'nature vs. nurture' in humans. 

In a conversation on Fox’s Footy’s On The Couch during the 2012 NAB cup between Paul Roos and James Hird, the pair that the (then-new and now abolished) AFL Substitute Rule was sadly pushing out Indigenous players at the top level, based on their “lack of endurance”. While both Hird and Roos have both been senior AFL coaches at different times in their careers, and by all indications have been refreshingly staunch supporters of Indigenous players in general, it is staggering to think that their expertise, expressed so ‘matter of factly’, could be so ignorant on this occasion.

”Good Luck, John, and just remember, (pointing to his forearm) don’t draft anyone with skin darker than mine”

In reality, many Aboriginal players have to work even harder than non-Indigenous AFL draftees to get noticed by club scouts, due to evidently existing racial stereotypes in the AFL system. A good example of this obvious bias was in 2012 when the Adelaide Crows recruiting manager Matt Rendell was identified as someone who would only draft an Aboriginal player unless 'he had one white parent'. Rendell said his comments were taken out of context but he nonetheless resigned over the scandal.

Hawthorn, throughout their successful premiership-winning dynasties of the 70s, 80s and 90s, did not have one Indigenous player. Ex-Hawthorn recruiting manager John Turnbull admits there was "strong undercurrents of prejudice", and when he joined the club in 1995, the person he was replacing (a white man) told him, ”Good Luck, John, and just remember, (pointing to his forearm) don’t draft anyone with skin darker than mine”. Under Turnbull, Hawthorn changed their strategy and drafted numerous Indigenous players, including Chance Bateman, Cyril Rioli, Mark Williams and Lance Franklin who all played in their memorable 2008 Grand Final win.

 

Why are we so over-represented at the top?

So if Aboriginals don’t have innate ‘magical’ skills, then why are we so over-represented in the game at the top level in 2018? There are 92 players male and female who identify as Indigenous in the premier league, making up 10 per cent of the AFL’s total players. Rather than having football in our DNA, it’s the passionate dedication to the game Aboriginal kids have from a young age; Indigenous representation is scarce in Australia, but many role models can be found in the football leagues since the AFL has had a commitment to raise Aboriginal participation after the wake-up call of the publicised racism that Nicky Winmar and Michael Long suffered. It's the fact that AFL partly has its roots in the traditional Indigenous game, Marngrook. It's the history of ball games being played in missions. It's the lack of entertainment and extra-curricular activities in communities, which makes own a ball, a big deal. 

It's the outstanding Aboriginal footballers, of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, who, as scant as they were trail blazed a path for the modern day Aboriginal footballer. Players such as Graham “Polly” Farmer, Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, Sir Doug Nicholls and The Krakouer Brothers were instrumental in breaking down barriers and stereotypes for Aboriginal players in the big league.

But ultimately —it’s simply that Aboriginal players are professional, work hard to get drafted and have AFL careers. This undeniable fact is unfortunately lost on some in the AFL community.

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

 


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