Education is an often used, catch-all phrase to deal with all manner of issues in football and Australian society. In this episode of Yokayi Footy it is the common thread that can truly enable lasting change.
I RECALL listening to the radio in early 2000 as I drove to the university where I was doing my PhD. It was a talk-back session with a well-known Perth media personality who had a long involvement as a team manager with a WAFL club. He spoke of a game where a young Aboriginal Colts player was instructed at quarter-time to play tighter on his opponent.
"Stay on number 15," the coach said gruffly. The instruction was not followed and at half-time the coach ripped into the young man. As the side went back out to start the third quarter the media personality took the young man aside. "Just get on him mate and we will kill this mob," he said reassuringly. The young Colt looked at him, confused, saying, "Tell me what the colour of his hair is, which one is he?"
At first the personality did not understand, reiterating the coach's instruction: "Number 15!!" The Colt shrugged. The penny dropped, the Colt did not know what the number 15 was.
For some time unpacking this anecdote is something I struggled with. The reason? What are the circumstances that see an Australian citizen have no comprehension of a number? How hard would it be being illiterate or innumerate? In this way education is not just something undertaken so you can get a job it provides one with the skills to navigate life's challenges and unlocks doors to opportunity and experience.
The opening sequence of Yokayi Footy showed the power of education as a device of engagement. A tweet from deputy chief health officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen's comparing the arrival of Captain Cook to COVID-19 was taken to task. Bianca Hunt's monologue was instructive of the way understanding history enables us to enter into a debate, albeit via a tweet, and challenge the contested nature of history.
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander footballers the decision to study is pursued much later in their careers or not seen as an option at all.
The focus for many is on being a professional athlete and providing for their families. This is understandable but the litany of First Nations players who transition out of the game not having done any further education at TAFE or tertiary level is concerning.
These issues have long dogged the AFL and Australian society as the Close the Gap indicators show. Education in particular is key to understanding the intersection between other KPIs like health, housing and wellbeing. It is something that an organisation like the Go Foundation, set up by Sydney champions Adam Goodes and Michael O'Loughlin, have sought to address.
For the Go Foundation education is the cornerstone to engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from kindergarten through to tertiary studies. By providing scholarships and support that is underpinned by their own research data they are able to ensure that the pathway to positive outcomes is possible.
It is significant that Goodes and O'Loughlin having not come from privileged backgrounds have used their standing and time in football to create the Go Foundation indicating their understanding of education as a tool for building capacity.
In this way the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School that has partnered with the Richmond Football Club is also providing a pathway.
MITS provides for Year 7's a differentiated learning program which foregrounds Indigenous cultures and enables each student to grow academically, socially and emotionally. For the reigning premier to invest in this partnership again demonstrates the importance they see in fostering this type of program which extends out beyond football.
Focusing on Top End and regional Victorian communities 22 young people make the journey to Melbourne to board. It is here they not only build their ability to study and learn but also precious resilience to navigate their way through issues like homesickness and being away from Country and family.
This in many respects mirrors the journey of football recruits who have to suspend the temptation to return home. Just as Richmond and all the other clubs in the AFL have had to maintain their off-site training regimes to ensure the standard of the game upon return MITS have also been using the shutdown to assist students with regular online tutorials so they can pick up where they left off.
As the Closing the Gap indicators show, educational outcomes of First Nations people is still a major concern. It has been reported by the World Health Organisation that the correlation between education and health is irrefutable. That is, the better one's educational outcome the better health they will have.
The most recent Closing the Gap report indicated that on most socio-economic measures First Nations Australians lag behind the rest of the population. Of the seven targets only two, early education and Year 12 completion rates, were tracking satisfactorily. Of the remaining five, child mortality, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, employment and life expectancy there has been little gains or no improvement.
Despite the gravity of these indicators and what they represent it would be too easy to think that the task regarding the targets is insurmountable. Yet the information that they contain enables us as a nation to see where the gaps are. Gaps provide space for opportunity enabling greater innovation and strategic planning than previously thought. This then is the greatest legacy of education as it helps us to problem solve and think our way out of situations that seem hopeless or dire. Situations like what we are now currently experiencing both on and off the field.