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Changing the narrative: how the media can re-frame Indigenous AFL stories

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Flaws in the AFL’s internal processes, including discriminatory scouting and drafting, and under- and mis-representation in Australia’s media coverage also reflect our country’s wider social issues. 

The media continues to couple Indigeneity with issues of crime, welfare and land rights. Similarly, the AFL views incarceration as a reason to exclude talent, rather than a post-colonial mechanism of oppression and as a product of intergenerational trauma. It is time for the AFL to reflect on their drafting processes by reframing their view on incarceration. 

Luckily, this conversation is made more possible by star players including Marlion Pickett, who has managed to contradict narratives put out by the media and reinforced by the AFL. Pickett’s successes on the field also show us how Australian rules football could be used more effectively as a vehicle for visibility for Indigenous players (and the wider Indigenous communities they represent).

Roots of Australian rules football

The true origin of the game we know as Australian rules football is a point of contention. Elements of it can be traced back to Gaelic football (first played in 1885). It has been posited elements of the sport derive from the traditional Indigenous game Marn Grook (a Woiwurung phrase meaning “game of ball”). The game was traditionally played in the area we know as the state of Victoria, which now happens to be Australia’s biggest AFL state. Whether the AFL knows it or not, their sport is rooted in an Indigenous game. You certainly wouldn’t guess, from the (to say the least) lacklustre acceptance of Indigenous players into the system, that the game is derived from an Indigenous tradition.

A rising AFL star

Noongar man and Australian football star Marlion Pickett grew up playing football in South-West Perth in the early 2000s, while also meeting his partner (and mother of his four children) Jessica Nannup. Pickett describes a ‘rite of passage’ to the ABC (Australian Story) in which young boys start going out (“getting into trouble”, as Pickett puts it) with their older brothers. In 2007 (when he began going out with his brother and his friends at age 15), he was arrested and imprisoned at Banksia Hill Detention Centre (South-East of Perth) for committing an offence: grievous bodily harm. This marked the beginning of what he identifies as a damaging (but not unique) cycle for many young Indigenous men in Perth. 

Awards including the WAFL’s Best & Fairest (2018) and VFL’s Norm Goss Memorial Medal (2019) preceded Pickett’s eventual selection by the Richmond Tigers’ board for the 2019 AFL Premiership. Having been apprehended at 15 years old and inevitably trapped in the prison system until age 24, the AFL missed out on years of potential talent. Even Pickett’s partner Nannup commented to ABC that she “didn’t know how talented he was” until she saw him play AFL. 

Un-equal opportunities in football

Last year, the AFL Grand Final series boasted just over 14.35 million viewers. Being a homegrown game with mass viewership, the AFL has the potential to project non-white narratives into mainstream media.

In its current state, AFL players are scouted and drafted in their late teens. This is problematic for groups who struggle against intergenerational and long-standing systems of oppression. Flaws in our justice system have been recently highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has illuminated stories (which have been present in Indigenous communities since colonisation) including the police who kicked a 17-year-old Indigenous teenager to the ground in NSW on June 7. Many Indigenous youths are discriminated against from the get-go, and therefore aren’t even afforded a chance to represent their communities in their sport. 

Despite brimming with drive and talent, 24-year-old post-incarceration Marlion Pickett approached Essendon, West Coat Eagles, Freemantle and St Kilda, only to be turned down by all. On Australian Story, he noted feelings of frustration and anger that he was being judged for his past. 

The AFL should reflect on their drafting processes. Reframing how incarceration is viewed (as a post-colonial vehicle of oppression) will at least give the opportunity for Indigenous players to write their own stories in the media. The AFL board would benefit from understanding crime and incarceration as a force of colonialism and intergenerational trauma, rather than a reason to exclude talent from drafting. Moreover, the game would benefit from the talent that Indigenous players can bring (and have brought, in the case of Marlion Pickett, Adam Goodes and Nicky Winmar – to name a few) to the field.

Pickett addressing the media after Richmond's 2019 premiership win in 2019. Image credit: Shutterstock.

Pickett is now an active mentor at Banksia Hill Detention Centre. He also told the ABC of hopes to become a mentor to Indigenous youth when retired from AFL.

Nina Johnson

Nina Johnson

Nina is an aspiring narrative therapist and youth worker from Sydney. She is passionate about first people’s issues and is inspired by stories of strength.

Header image: Aboriginal flag made up by coloured boards on a sports field. Image credit: Michael Coghlan, Flickr.

ProudRoots is based in Perth (Boorloo), and we strive to produce informative and uplifting content.

To stay up to date with the Black Lives Matter Movement in Perth, Boorloo Justice is the best group to connect with. Followers can stay up to date via their social media sites.

Organisations such as SHINE for Kids help young people affected by incarceration. You can donate or volunteer (if based in NSW, VIC, QLD or ACT) with their organisation to support Indigenous youth affected by the incarceration cycle.

If you’d like to support the Black Lives Matter Movement, you can donate to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services fundraiser to help stop Black deaths in custody in Australia.

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