||Issue No. 133||26 April 2002|
The Struggle Continues
Interview: If The Commission Pleases
History: Protest and Celebrate
Unions: A Novel Approach
Industrial: Hare Tony, Hare Tony
International: Never Forget Jenin
Politics: Left Right Out In France
Health: Delivering A Public Health Revolution
Review: The Secret Life of U(nion)s
Poetry: May Day, May Day
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Gold Star Student
Time for a General Strike?
The Locker Room
The Hidden Culture of Indigenous Football
Reproduced from Overland
I remember that he was taller, younger and faster than I was. He was also playing on his home field. I had only recently arrived in the remote northern community. It was the middle of summer, 1974. We were playing Aussie Rules in bare feet and we were on opposite sides. As he ran past I threw out a desperate tackle, not expecting to make any difference. But the timing was perfect and to my surprise he went down. Straight down! Normally being tackled and winded in a game wouldn't make any difference but this was no ordinary, southern game. As he lay there everything stopped. Players sat on the ground and waited, his mother ran onto the field with a bucket of cool water and the umpire found something else to interest him. The fallen player swore a few nasty things at whoever had tackled him, as did some of his fellow players, and suddenly I realised I had stepped over a definite, but invisible, boundary. The thought of a spearing didn't appear attractive nor did any apologies seem helpful. So I excused myself before the game finished and walked very gingerly back to my temporary home.
Ever since that day I have wondered about the culture of Indigenous football, the particular and often exciting ways that Indigenous men play this 'Aussie' game. This article is about that. Within the AFL, in 2001, there were more than 50 registered Indigenous players. Their statistical over-representation, approximately three times what might be expected, was matched by an under-representation of informed commentary about them as players. The media were all too ready to present them as possessors of "magic", bearers of "silky skills" and constantly being either "mercurial" or "enigmatic". Often they were depicted as "doing the unexpected" while, at the same time, "they always seem to know where to find each other".
These commentaries, struggling to invent new phrases of praise for these talented footballers, reveal little knowledge or understanding about the origin or nature of their skills, where they were born and how they were nurtured. Stereotypes are regularly introduced to describe this football behaviour, giving little room for Indigenous players to be different from one another or even similar to non Indigenous players. One consequence is that Indigenous footballers can be presented as exotic. Their play can be expected to be always 'different'. Another, and perhaps a more serious result, is that whatever they bring to the game can simply be appropriated by the dominant culture of the game. Such assimilation leaves little room for consideration about the particular gifts which Indigenous footballers bring to football and what it is they offer to others who play or watch this distinctive Australian game.
I need to state some things at the outset. Firstly, I am not an Indigenous person nor claim to speak for those who play Aussie Rules. I have been closely involved with Indigenous men in the area of Aussie Rules for more than 25 years and in different Australian States. My involvement has included playing football with and against many, coaching with and being coached by them and being active with them in the area of sports health. As I have got older I have found myself, like many ex-players, umpiring games. But even here the umpiring can be quite different and distinctive from how it is performed down south.
Secondly, Aussie Rules, as a TV programme theme song and the title of a recent book suggest, is "more than a game". It can be understood as a metaphor for the social, economic and political forces which influence and dominate Indigenous society. For example, no serious comment about football and Indigenous players can simply avoid reference to issues of race . When Nicky Winmar lifted his jumper and pointed proudly to his skin when facing abusive Collingwood supporters in 1993, or Michael Long accused Damian Monkhorst of racial abuse in 1995, the sensitivity and importance of race as an issue within Aussie Rules could not be denied. The question as to how and why some Indigenous footballers play distinctive styles of the game has, as a result, been rarely addressed. It lies in a politically, very sensitive area.
In the case of Aussie Rules, any fear we experience in talking about the particular gifts of Indigenous footballers holds within it a challenge to carefully examine our history and the broader consequences of it. When asked by a radio commentator about the ability of Indigenous players to 'perceive' players around them, Chris Lewis said quite simply: there were mobs of us as kids and we only had one football. You had to learn where the others were if you wanted a kick. For many Indigenous footballers skills were not learned within the arenas of privilege. Not only can we, as outsiders, endow Indigenous footballers with large doses of mystery, where there are none, but we can also forget a larger, social and political picture. Ovals, particularly Aussie Rules ones, are incredibly large. They require enormous maintenance and cost if they are to be established, grassed, watered and mown. Jumpers and footballs are costly and the majority of Indigenous players come from families and communities which are materially poor when compared with most Australians. The skills which we admire in Indigenous players are skills born in our post-colonial Australia. As Indigenous Researcher, Darren Godwell, reminds us, "Sport may be a revered site in Australian society, and Indigenous peoples may have achieved much, but we should not blindly accept its stereotypes."
The last point I want to make is that the following reflections are based on personal experience. While my involvement with Indigenous people and football has included North Queensland and Victoria the following reflections arise mainly out of football as I have experienced it in the NT and particularly in the western desert of WA.
Aussie Rules - Early Origins
Whether Aussie Rules football originated as an Indigenous game, and even within the context of important meetings and corroborees, is not entirely clear. Descriptions of early games played by Indigenous people in western Victoria talk of a contest where a ball made from possum skin was used. What is more clear is that Aussie Rules has developed as a very different game from the other major forms of 'football' played in Australia. Not only did it develop as a more free flowing game, as expressed by the different ways by which the ball could be carried, passed or kicked, but it gave greater freedom for players to move ahead of the ball. It relied on a larger playing surface, and a larger number of players, than either of the Rugby's and Soccer. It is a game that can be practised in alley ways and backyards but it is a game that can only be played in the open. It is also a game where the pairing of players is an essential ingredient.
The Culture of Pairings
If one ever watches the 'pairings' (or 'match-ups', as commentators prefer to call them) that often begin an Indigenous game one notices that they are often formed by men who are friends or close relations. Being 'paired' for competition can reflect the importance of 'pairings' in other cultural contexts. Unlike non Indigenous society, which strongly values a person's individuality and independence, unmarried Indigenous men (and women) often move or travel around with someone of the same sex who is their best friend. Many of the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) stories are stories of two principal actors who travelled the land together (eg. the Wati Kutjarra, Tjiitji Kutjarra etc). Many Indigenous languages, unlike English, possess a dual number where the actions of two people are described, inclusively or exclusively, in relation to a larger group of people. Being 'paired' for a game of football confirms an already important cultural context and awareness for competition.
When Indigenous men enter the arena of football they already come with a set of values around the ways men can and should relate with one another. Being 'paired' or 'matched up' for a game of football does not have the same overtones of opposition and domination that can be experienced or valued by non Indigenous players.
The Skills of Hunting
Indigenous men come to the arena of football with a number of cultural legacies and traditions. One is that of being 'hunter' . At one level it is easy to see Aussie Rules football as a modern form of hunting. The animal being hunted, and a football, might once have shared a common origin, as it has been suggested in those early games in western Victoria which used a ball made from possum skin. But hunting is about a particular use of one's body. It involves the use of physical skills, with a keen awareness of the land, while using a variety of forms of non verbal communication with other hunters. Hunting is the combination of finely honed skills which Indigenous men have developed in this land over thousands of years and which many continue to use today. Hunting is learned and it is learned from an early age. It requires the concentration and focus of many senses, the balance of physical movement with strength and speed, the use of precise timing with careful bodily coordination. Chasing a fast moving target in bare feet amongst spinifex grass is probably as good a training exercise for football as a coach has ever invented. And if you have ever hunted goanna, a black headed python or a blue tongue lizard you would know what I mean.
As Indigenous men pursued those low lying, or sometimes low flying, objects of their desire they did it with others. Hunting in small groups, often with other men, they communicated silently as they went, using a wide range of hand and facial signs and gestures. The slightest movement of a body, a glance, sign or facial expression, all part of a highly developed skill of non-verbal communication. Whether it be over short or vast distances nothing needed to be said or shouted. Hunting concentrated non verbal skills as the hunted was observed, tracked, trapped and then caught by men who learned to move quietly and powerfully together. As a person's body works moved in concert with the land, the weather and the object of attention it also works moved with other 'bodies' of men, forming a concentration of energy and purpose to achieve the final 'goal', when the object was caught.
Hunting is much more than a precise physical or biological skill. It is a social, mental and physical technique nurtured within ancient connections to the land and in relationship with other men. As we wonder about the connection between this modern game of football and the techniques of hunting we might remember Desmond Morris' descriptions of ancient body skills where "the chase became an essential part of male existence and required athleticism, stamina and a temperament that encouraged persistence." Some of us might have forgotten our ancient hunting heritage, but for many young Indigenous men today that heritage exists and is passed on.
Aussie Rules also connects important aspects of men's kinship and men's business. This is not to say that women do not play football or should not be involved in it. But it is to suggest that what men negotiate outside the football arena, in terms of relationships with other men, is carried onto the football field. Kinship, for example, does not cease as one enters the playing field. Most men will have precisely defined relationships with each of the men on his own side, as also that of the opposition. Such relationships can be noted when the single men camp at a football carnival, side by side. Different relationships mean different codes of affection, familiarity, avoidance and respect. One's older brother, one's uncle, one's brother-in-law, one's cousin. Different ways of relating but at the heart of all of these relationships lies the key ingredient of 'respect'. Not too hard a tackle, not too hard a bump. Playing it fast and sometimes playing it very hard. The art is developing the skill of avoidance as the ball is being 'hunted'. Not going over that fine invisible line where being accused of playing 'too hard' or 'too rough' provides the ingredients for a more serious accusation and confrontation. And sometimes confrontation does result when the tackle is experienced as too personal or aggressive and the ball is believed to have been ignored.
There are also other relationships at work on the football field. Most of these are hidden to the non Indigenous world for these relationships are born and nurtured in men's Law ceremonies. These relationships reflect an even deeper bond between men and they demand even further respect, even avoidance, for some men from others. Visitors to communities will not know of these relationships and might wonder as a player appears to hang back from tackling another too aggressively. Strong men's business can exist even here on the football field. Learning this art of skilled avoidance, while still putting enough physical pressure on one's opponent, is high art indeed.
On Anzac Day 2001 when Essendon played Collingwood, the newspaper and television commentator, Dermot Brereton, drew an analogy between the diggers at Gallipoli and modern footballers. He draw some relevance between today's game and the ANZAC heritage. In essence he said that football was more about combat than skill, winning more important than losing, violence more valuable than respect, confrontation more commendable than avoidance. "It is apparent", he wrote, "that Australian servicemen were feared and respected by their foes. Their virtues sound very much like the virtues of our great sporting heroes." This view of the game of Aussie Rules is a construction of a very different game to that which is played in parts of Australia by Indigenous men. It is also the view of the game where the boundary around appropriate male behaviour has been shifted and significantly re-drawn.
Some years after my first northern football encounter, and important cultural lesson, a group of us, including the same young man I had tackled, met over a few drinks. We talked about the past and the various things we had shared since we first met. Without any warning he turned to me and asked, "That time on the football field. It was an accident, wasn't it?" Whatever had happened that day, those years before, had not been forgotten. And not by myself either.
Since that game, on a dry, dusty oval in the north, I have reflected on the way Indigenous footballers provide something that is distinctive and different for our Australian game. At the heart of what they bring is a great enjoyment for Aussie Rules. But they also bring their culture with them: hunting that low lying and flying object of desire, the art of skilled avoidance and holding to that fine line which puts pressure on an opponent but also offers him respect. Football can be an important area of men's business where skills and relationships are strengthened and the use of aggression is negotiated. Without a more reflective sense of what is being enacted in this game of Aussie Rules we run the risk of carelessly assimilating Indigenous footballers into the game without appreciating what it is they bring and how their cultural strengths can enrich our game and ourselves.
Brian F McCoy is with the Centre for the Study of Health and Society at Melbourne University. This article is based on a paper given at the Australian Anthropological Society Annual Conference, La Trobe University, AFL Grand Final Day, September 29th, 2001.
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