• Graham "Polly" Farmer was an inspiration for generations of Indigenous footballers. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
As Reconciliation Week continues, this must-read piece gives a fascinating insight into the power of football.
Dr Sean Gorman

28 May 2020 - 2:28 PM  UPDATED 28 May 2020 - 2:28 PM

IT'S NATIONAL Reconciliation Week. The week would have seen Sir Doug Nicholls Round and the unveiling of each team's specially designed guernseys celebrating the immense contributions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players have made to the game. So, we have come up with something to recognise that using some of the greatest players the game has seen.

It's National Reconciliation Week. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the broader society, it is a big week, one that is full of symbolism, culture, and meaning. As a week it enables all of us, as Australians, to discuss and reflect on the issues of history and past policy and the toll it has taken on all of us whether we like it or not.

For some, the issue of Reconciliation Week is lost. Perhaps it is seen as a time of the year where self-pity and victimhood are foregrounded? That is one's prerogative, but in order to perhaps shift that perspective, let's use a football story to educate what the true message of Reconciliation is and why it is part of the national calendar.

Polly Farmer is considered by many to be the greatest footballer the game has seen. He changed the game. What Farmer did was to re-imagine football specific to the things he was a master at, deft trucking, and the use of handball as a creative, attacking force. For Farmer, being able to get first use of the ball and release it to a player on the run meant the team's chances of winning were increased.  

Yet, Polly Farmer's story in terms of football and our understanding of it came very close to not happening.

Born in Fremantle in 1935 in the height of the Depression Farmer's mother did not have the means of support and so she made the difficult decision and gave him up to the care of Sister Kate's Children's Home in Perth. The policy of the day saw children, like Farmer, become wards of the state because of their Aboriginality.  

By Farmer's own account, life at Sister Kates was strict but good. Unlike other heavy workloads experienced at the Moore River Native Settlement, made famous by the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, Sister Kates encouraged physical activity. For Farmer, this meant cricket in the summer and football in the winter.  

But life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians all over Australia were restricted in terms of what they could and could not do. Permissions were needed from the Native Welfare Department to do all manner of things, from moving around the city, visiting relatives in the country, getting a job, and so on. Children were removed from families with the flick of a pen.  

By the time Farmer reached the age of 16 in the early 1950s, department policy dictated he would be sent into the country to work on farms for several years.  

As the East Perth Football club was interested in Farmer, powerful forces assembled culminating in a public poll in the Sunday Times to lobby the government to stop this from happening. In the end, Farmer was granted a very rare permission to stay and play in Perth. As Farmer points out, 'the only thing I did not want to be was farming'. The rest is history.

It was Farmer's ability to play football that made the broader society take notice of him. Think about that. His football created the platform that gave rise to his story and from this others have followed becoming the beneficiaries of his legacy. This is the power of the game. This is the power of the players that play it.  

In episode 10 of Yokayi Footy, current-day stars and captains reflected on the contribution First Nations Australians had made to the game. Players like Paddy Ryder, Rory Sloane, Shane Edwards, Trent Cotchin, Nathan Jones, and Dean Rioli. For Eddie Betts, the Sir Doug Nicholls round and Reconciliation Week are pivotal because it 'gives us a voice and a platform to make a change'.

For Fremantle captain, Nat Fyfe's playing alongside Indigenous players is amazing because they see things that 'us wadjulars can't see'. 

This is not just a ringing endorsement, but a compelling insight into the way the code brings us together, helps us deal with our differences, and to heal

A great example of the power of football as it relates to First Nations Australians was the premiere of the 'Old Style COVID Style' campaign revealed exclusively on Yokayi Footy.

As Tanya Hosch, the manager of the Inclusion and Social policy department at the AFL explains, it is 'the strength of presence' both on and off the field that the AFL in Reconciliation Week can be proud of. 

For Hosch, the first Indigenous person on the AFL executive can attest, this points to the historic appointment of Professor Helen Milroy on the AFL Commission, Peter Matera being the first Indigenous person on the AFL Tribunal, and that on several AFL club boards sits a First Nations person.

The 'Old Style COVID Style' campaign is yet another example of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bring to the game. As a campaign, it works using well-known and high-profile past and present players, namely Andrew McLeod, Michael O'Loughlin and Adam Goodes, as well as Adam 'Senator' Briggs, the rapper from A.B. Original and a life-long Bombers supporter.

The campaign uses Blackfella humour to great effect that helps convey the importance of the COVID crisis, but it does it in a way that is accessible and cheeky. 

In this way, the importance and power of First Nations peoples and their standing in the public life provides a deeper context, other than just that of football or celebrity, in a time of national crisis.

A crisis that will have long-lasting implications for the game and the people in it. By reflecting on Reconciliation Week, we are able to understand our history. In this way, Polly Farmer's story, and others like it, become even more important as the Sir Doug Nicholls round helps us celebrate our players and our game ... but it enables us to talk and through a conversation understand our shared past, own it, and move on. 

Dr Sean Gorman is an author, historian, and Indigenous AFL specialist. He currently works for the AFL and was the lead investigator in the AFL's review of its vilification laws.

Watch Yokayi Footy Wednesdays 8pm on NITV.