There has been a fair bit of commentary around what has and hasn’t been done to oppose racism and to take action to make the AFL and football community more open and welcoming to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

As the Chairman of the AFL Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council, a body set up to provide advice to the League on issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, I feel I should bring awareness to the achievements that have been made across the football industry. 

As a Yorta Yorta man and the President of an Aboriginal Football/Netball Club in Shepparton I am deeply embedded in addressing the future of our people and the role of the AFL. Whilst we feel there is a lot that has changed,  I know there is much work left to do.  There always is. But to the members of the AFL Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council there is also acknowledgement that the AFL industry has made significant gains in opening up opportunities to more Indigenous people. 

As someone who has been involved in Indigenous organisations across health, leadership, sport, finance, employment and training, I can say that in my experience the AFL and the 18 clubs have shown that they are committed to listening and learning and taking action to make the game more inclusive at all levels and creating systematic change across the industry and addressing cultural awareness. However change requires all levels of Government and AFL industry partners to support the AFL’s intent to engender a stronger sense of inclusion. 

The Advisory Council has provided ongoing advice to the AFL, including the development of the Enhanced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy, 2018 which provides objectives promoting Indigenous leaders across the industry, strengthen the game’s role in improving social outcomes for Indigenous peoples, improve the post-career outcomes for people, ensure an inclusive environment, strengthen community football experiences for Indigenous peoples, and ensure inclusion in the growth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women playing football. 

They are the practical steps that the Council helped to identify that can make a real difference for indigenous Australians. 

The Council is pleased to see that strategy being advanced. The appointment of an AFL Commissioner who is Aboriginal is one of our highly strategic recommendations. Professor Helen Milroy was appointed in 2019.  In 2016, Tanya Hosch was appointed as the first Indigenous AFL Executive, ensuring matters of inclusion are raised at every Executive meeting.  

The Council is pleased to see that change is happening across the industry.   Five clubs now have an Aboriginal Board members, there are four Aboriginal coaches across the AFL system, Peter Matera was appointed to the AFL Tribunal and more opportunities have been opened up for Indigenous employees across the clubs and the AFL.  The Council believes it is important that the AFL and the clubs work to protect that position in a post-Covid world.  The extension of the Sir Doug Nicholls Round and the celebration of Aboriginal champions from across the country is also important. 

The Council also provides advice and support to the AFL to develop programs that support measures to oppose racism at local community football level as well.  It is vital that all levels of football take up the fight against racism. 

Last year the AFL unveiled the statue of Nicky Winmar in Perth - the first statue of an Aboriginal AFL player. A fantastic player that made that highly visible stand against the racism he was experiencing. Again, it is important that it is not the last. 

Last year 15% of players drafted into the AFL were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. In the AFLW it was 6% of draftees which shows the AFL still has work to do in our communities to ensure more Indigenous women reach the highest level.  

The Council believes that having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in senior roles – like Prof Milroy, like Tanya Hosch and like those who have joined club Boards is vital and that we need more Indigenous peoples and presence across all parts of the football industry.  

We were pleased to see that a media round-table was held earlier this year to explore ways to increase the amount of Indigenous talent across the football media. The recent appointment of Yokayi presenter Tony Armstrong to take on a sports broadcasting role with the ABC shows that there is Indigenous talent that will be identified when given the opportunity.

The apology to Adam Goodes was a painful time for all concerned, particularly Adam and his family. It was learning experience for the AFL for it shone a light on the depth and ignorance surrounding racism in football and the Australian community.  There have been other painful learning experiences but the AFL need to maintain its approach and turn those experiences into action and change. 

The culture of the AFL industry has shifted over the last five years but racism is not unlike the pandemic.  If you don’t identify the source and isolate it, it will spread and cause harm, disharmony and inequality, it causes grief and has a severe impact on, not only our peoples quality of life, but the Nation. We know the AFL attracts the passion and is embedded in the psyche of the nation, we also know that in the heat of the game Australian football can act as a lightning rod for racism.  As a very public institution, the AFL actions and responses are open to public scrutiny. 

What was the acceptable norm of ignorance and overt racist attitudes in the game is changing fast.  The AFL is leading that change.  Incidents still happen but the racism is identified and addressed by the industry, clubs and the fans much faster and to better effect in the last five years.   

The AFL has shown leadership. That leadership has been pushed by Aboriginal people, including players to be part of the family of football. Part of the environment at every level, and a part of decision-making at every level. 

We will continue to push for change.  The players stepped up that push by all taking a knee.  To see the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players and those players from a range of different backgrounds supported by all their team-mates, umpires, officials, their clubs and the AFL shows that the industry is prepared to listen, to learn, to support.  To see the response from so many players and officials to the abuse of Eddie Betts is to know that it is no longer ignored. The AFL have to take action to demonstrably show the Nation and the AFL community that racism is wrong and will not be tolerated. Every time.  It is important that we build on the momentum and the awareness of the past couple of weeks to continue the change that is needed to ensure the AFL is truly inclusive to everyone, every time.  

We will continue to push for more change – much more change – but we also must acknowledge that the AFL and the clubs are listening to our advice and acting on it. 

Paul Briggs OAM is a Yorta Yorta man and the Chair of the AFL Indigenous Advisory Council, a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Treaty Working Group and the founding president of the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club and Executive Director of the Kaiela Institute.  He has chaired numerous Aboriginal organisations and was the founding Chairman of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), Indigenous Leadership Network, First Nations Australian Credit Union, Koori Economic Employment and the Training Agency Committee and various other regional, state and national bodies.