As round two of the AFL season being successfully completed its official – footy is back. With a round of a few upsets, a draw and still no fans in the stands, the most consistent issue was the players response to the Black Lives Matters campaign. With all players taking the knee the message was sent and that message was 'it's not about black and white, it's about all of us against racism'.
If a week is a long time in football, what is 12 weeks in a delayed season? An eon? An eternity? The nation is slowly thawing out from the COVID cold snap and the footy on our screens helped warm our heart, albeit belatedly. It was through the many different ways to consume football we got to share in what it means to be a fan. It made us feel something approaching normality.
Well … maybe not for Pies and Tigers fans with the draw and very possibly not for West Coast supporters who were belted by the Suns.
The most refreshingly unusual thing was the unified approach by all the players in taking the knee before each game. We have seen nothing like it before. Sadly, there had been some social media chirp where some fans decried the action and demanded their money back if players went through with it. The Fremantle Dockers responded in kind by telling one member that if they were not happy with the 'knee-taking' they would organise a refund.
Since its inception Fremantle have played 567 games. Only one fixture in their history did not feature an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander player. What this says to me is the Fremantle Football club value the legacy of, and relationships with their First Nations players, their families and the communities they represent rather than the threat of one of its disgruntled members walking away.
The justification of the knee-taking was explained by Carlton’s co-captain and All Australian Sam Docherty in response to yet another banal racist tweet directed to Eddie Betts.
"If anyone is asking the question about why we are taking the knee pre-game and why we are making the stance this is the reason. Being silent has not worked for a number of years. As a club and as an industry this is what we need to do.
This weeks show had everything, namely the showcasing of incredible talent form the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander players. It spoke of their stories individually but also the power of them as a collective. It showed the deadly creativity of Sonny Walters and Charlie Cameron as archetypal small forwards. It showed the aerial class of Stevie Motlop. It highlighted the resilience of Neville Jetta playing his 150th game having been delisted in 2013 and a re-rookied in 2014. Harley Bennell made his return to the game after 1021 days. Bennell has had his challenges both on and off the park but his patience and diligence is unquestionable. Then there was the rising star in Tarryn Thomas who looks like he could do anything with or without the pill.
For the AFLPA’s Indigenous relationships manager, Jamie Bennell, it was his first guest appearance on Yokayi Footy. The ex-Demon and Eagles player seems ready made for tv and handled the guest role with consummate ease. Bennell spoke about the role he plays at the AFLPA and what he hopes to achieve in it. Presenting and talking to the AFLPA’s 2020 Indigenous map was a great way for Bennell to show the breadth of male and female talent in the game and importantly where they are from.
Bianca Hunt beamed in Sonny Walters from the Gold Coast high performance hub. Walters talked of the weirdness of coming back after 3 months and the challenges of being away from family.
"I was a bit sceptical and worried about this but it’s better than I thought it would be. Facetime helps a lot.
Walters responded to the issue regarding the Fremantle member with measured class.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. The way the club and the whole competition handled it was great. We all want to be treated equally and we are not going away. There is a strong Indigenous history at Freo and when I pull on the jumper I’m representing my family and my community, black and white.
In order to drive this point home was the video package of cross-town Eagles rival Francis Watson and his community in Balgo. Watson spoke of the importance of his Kukatja language to his identity which helps maintain his culture and the relationships with his elders. For many in the community English is their fifth language. Talking with Warlayirti artist Helicopter Kjungurrayi, the elder took Francis through the community arts centre, a central hub of cultural and economic importance. We are very lucky to get this insight.
For Watson, football is the overlap between the outside world and his community. This is demonstrated when Watson shows us a game the local Balgo women are playing. The fun and self-expression they display by simply being involved is fantastic. It’s no different to kids playing Auskick in the city or young men playing in a country league.
We play and watch the game because we love it. It's why football is the great teacher and through its lessons we become better in understanding our history. It's why Eddie Betts plays. It's why his club loves him. It's why taking the knee is important and in doing so enables us to see its importance and why football has been so missed.
>> 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.