With the AFL shutting down games in Victoria, Melbourne's great football stadia will stand silent for months – but one thing is for certain: the AFL has risen to the challenge to keep the game alive. For First Nations players, the online racial trolling and stereotyping is also a challenge they too are rising to meet.
Imagine for a moment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players did not play football in the same way First Nations Australians are not represented in Australian Test Cricket. There has only been one First Nations player to do this. Kamilaroi man, Jason Gillespie.
With COVID-19 wreaking havoc, it's possible to perceive it could potentially, tangibly, wipe out the 2020 AFL season. By extension, it is also possible to imagine, given the persistent online trolling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander players, that they too may reconsider playing at the elite level because of the mental anguish that such behaviour creates.
Let me explain. I have had many discussions over many years with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, both current and past, that go something like this: "My dad/ uncle/cousin/brother/nephew did not want to play in the AFL because he felt that leaving the city/town/community meant he would cop racism, so he stayed put." Most of these conversations were before social media took hold.
At first, this kind of sentiment shocked me, which then gave way to sadness and anger. The reason?
It was the slow, creeping realisation that the code, the industry and the fans have not seen the fullest complement of First Nations football talent, not by a long shot. I am convinced of this and, as a consequence, the code has suffered.
If we turn our memory back to round six, we saw something of a phenomenon in the AFL. We saw the now and the future. Simultaneously, vividly, in the same game. With Noongar man Harley Bennell returning with the Demons after several uncertain seasons. His last goal against his old club had an almost Dickensian redemption to it. What an amazing accomplishment by Bennell and testament to his mighty ability, determination and family support.
This was complemented by Sun and Ngarrindjeri man Izak Rankine who in his first game kicked three of the most amazing goals you will ever see. The first two touted as the best two goals ever seen by a debutant. This claim was made by veteran caller Anthony Hudson who has been commentating since 1995. Think about that for moment.
The idea that First Nations players not playing football is anathema to the code and the people who support it, but so too are the cowardly keyboard warriors who attacked Bennell and, in the future, will potentially attack Rankine. They should be ashamed of themselves and of the pitiful, non-lives they lead.
This week saw ex-Essendon player and Yorta Yorta/Wemba Wemba/Gunditjmara man Nathan Lovett-Murray make his Yokayi Footy debut.
Now working at the Saints, Lovett- Murray is a mentor at RSEA Safety Park and is also heavily involved in the production of the new documentary on Nicky Winmar called Point and be Proud with celebrated footy film maker Peter Dixon.
Partnering with Vic Health and Head Space, the documentary is tackling the issue of racism and its impact on mental health. Keep an eye out for it in 2021.
Bianca Hunt interviewed Demon Stephen May who is locked down in the Hub on the Gold Coast. May, who is Larrakia, has battled with his body and mind, but now looks like he is flying.
Playing alongside ex-Suns team-mate Bennell, May said seeing him kick the sealer was a very special moment. For May, the issue of First Nations players at the elite level is a no-brainer due to their football acumen. May raised the more systemic and institutionalised issues such as chronic homesickness, unconscious bias, and stereotyping that has played its part in the unfair assessment regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander players for years.
May is right on both counts.
Perhaps if the scouts had seen Keith Rogers play at an earlier juncture, he would have made the trip down to Melbourne.
As a 62-year-old man he is still playing seniors for the Ngukurr Bulldogs. Described by his club as a leader, storyteller and jokester, Rogers not only rocks the best mullet since Danny Southern, but he draws on the same elements Bennell and Rankine do, tenacity and love of the game. Go hard, Keithy.
Despite the challenges that the code has experienced, it will rise to those challenges simply because of the importance of football in the lives of Australians.
The AFL has kicked out all the jams to ensure games are on the TV screens across the land because they know what it means to people. Everyone is working incredibly hard so you/me/us can feel in some small way something approaching normality.
At a time when Melbourne is in lockdown and Sydney looks like following soon, we have to understand that this need to see our game, Australia's game, is what makes us feel connected.
Just as First Nations players bring something special to the game, the game also brings something special that defies description, and they are enmeshed. So somewhere in that wonderful, crazy alchemy, with all of its visual chaos and magic, we can never lose sight of this no matter how hopeless the situation might look or how many points we are down at the last break, and how hard the wind is blowing against us. We've got this.
>> 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.