Indigenous footballers still facing stereotyping in the AFL
"It doesn't matter what the intention is, the constant reference to Indigenous players as different ultimately serves to strengthen cultural divisions," says Associate Professor Chris Hickey
Indigenous football players still face stereotyping within the Australian Football League says Deakin University’s Associate Professor Chris Hickey.
One of the key speakers at the recent Worlds of Football Conference, Associate Professor Hickey said Indigenous players continued to be treated as different.
“It doesn’t matter what the intention is, the constant reference to Indigenous players as different ultimately serves to strengthen cultural divisions,” he said.
“The current rise of Indigenous players participating in the AFL has been built up around a strong cultural profiling that identifies them as having unique physical skills. With an increasing emphasis on speed and agility in the modern game, Indigenous players have become synonymous with having flair, magic or x-factor.
“However, while the evolution of the game may be favourable to the physical attributes of Indigenous players, a stigma of risk and vulnerability continues to be attached to key aspects of their cultural identity.”
Dr Hickey said the growing industry around player recruitment made it commonplace for potential draftees to have their parents, teachers, friends and family members interviewed by clubs trying to identify the makeup of his ‘character’.
“Character traits indicating capacities to handle celebrity, relative wealth, free time, demands from sponsors, clubs and the industry, are assuming increasing prominence in deciding who to recruit, who to keep on the list and who to spend time, energy and resources on developing,” he said.
“Psychological testing and profiling of payers is becoming more important in identifying, recruiting and managing players.
“The problem is that unlike physical attributes, measuring character is a very inexact science, and issues like culture and class can be simplistically used to frame unfair judgements.”
Research by Dr Hickey and Dr Peter Kelly, from Monash University, into AFL player recruitment and management found that clubs continue to see Indigenous players as presenting particular risks and vulnerabilities which as a result pose particular management and resource issues. Their research, funded by the AFL Research Board and supported by the AFL Players Association was published in The Struggle for the Body, Mind and Soul of AFL Footballers, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008.
“Some clubs talked explicitly about the heightened risk when trying to assess the risks associated with recruiting Indigenous players,” he said.
“Things like, what suburb/area they come from, what schools they attend and their family status – good, bad, broken, close etc, are increasingly part of the risk calculation.
“In our research a General Manager of Football Operations at one club provided the following assessment of one Indigenous player:
‘Look it can be really tough. We’ve got (player name) here and we spend an enormous amount of time just keeping him afloat. He’s earning a lot more money than you and I. (Player name) falls into that Indigenous category. I differentiate it in terms of culture. We just manage for survival. I’ve had nearly full time resources keeping him afloat and paying bills and all that bullshit. I don’t see why we should be responsible for his irresponsibility.’
“This sort of assessment based on culture would be considered very problematic in most other employment contexts,” Professor Hickey continued.
“In AFL, this approach is considered appropriate because of the nature of the industry.
“A mistake by a player, say for drink driving or brawling can tarnish the club brand, affect sponsorship and cost the club a lot of money.”
Dr Hickey said that, while most clubs recognised the problematic nature of trying to make judgements about character, contemporary recruiting activities limited the chances of certain types of people, certain groups or cultures participating at the elite level.
“Aspects of a person’s cultural background may be important and useful for understanding particular issues but, in the end, the actions and character of any individual should never be reduced solely to culture,” he said.