'For the Tiwi people football means hope, it means pride and most of all it means life.' (Tiwi Footy Yiloga)

WHEN IT comes to football in the Northern Territory, it is hard to know where to begin. Having seen games played in Darwin, the Tiwi and Alice Springs, what I have come to understand is football in the NT is different. The players are different also, and it is why they are some of the most recognisable and loved.

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For many southerners the names Rioli, Long, Dempsey, White, McAdam, Burgoyne, McLean and McLeod are synonymous with the code. Lesser-known names are Kantilla, Cooper, Ah Mat and Peckham. Then there are the conditions that NT football is played in, during the wet from October to March. Personally, witnessing the deft handling of a ball rendered soap-like by the humidity, it squeezes the life out of everything and makes you wonder how it is possible to play a few minutes, let alone an entire game, of blue-chip football. Then there is the history and the myths of all the clubs making notions of provenance appear like a billowing thought bubble in the mind. Football in the Top End is different just as the people are, and it reflects in the style of game that you and I and the code more broadly are the beneficiaries of.

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The Sir Doug Nicholls Round is played not just as a themed round but as an acknowledgment of one of the game's pioneers. There had been players before Doug Nicholls, most notably Joe Johnson (Fitzroy 1904-05) and Albert Pompey Austin (Geelong 1872), but Nicholls in many respects was the trailblazer when playing for Fitzroy from 1932-37, the reason being that he is remembered more for his off-field exploits than his football or his sporting prowess.

EVERY CLUB Your team's jumper for Sir Doug Nicholls Round

His knighthood (1972) and governorship (1976) came off the back of sport (boxing, running and football), providing him with a platform so that he could explain the plight of First Nations people since colonisation and implore the policy-makers to consider Australia's first peoples. This is something he did right up to his death in 1988, Australia's bicentenary.

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This for many non-Indigenous Australians simply is not understood enough but if we think about it, without sport Australia would possibly be more divided than it is and certainly more impoverished without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players playing. Sport therefore has provided the social licence so we may interact respectfully and not from a traditional position of acting irrationality that racism creates.

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This is not to say we are a nation reconciled, but we can say that, when it comes to the grand narrative that is Australia, we are always in a state of becoming compared to America that seems to be in a continual state of imploding. Can we get better? My oath we can. As football is the common bond that enables us to commune and recreate collectively, it also enables us to understand our differences. This is what elevates Sir Doug Nicholls, the man,  and validates the round as an important social, cultural and political event on the Australian sporting calendar, an event that is in Darwin for the first time.

Yokayi Footy

Yokayi Footy

So given the round is a homage to a man of peace who enabled the nexus of football and understanding to take shape, it is also possible to read this more deeply and expansively through the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the AFL's Rule 35, its vilification rule. A rule that has in many respects has deep roots in the NT, race relations and football. Many would know of the histrionics and genesis of Rule 35, but let's recap.

In the first Anzac day blockbuster in 1995, Michael Long was abused by Damian Monkhorst. The game was drawn, and the outcome from the mediation session between Long and Monkhorst in the aftermath was somewhat of an impasse; Long, unhappy with his treatment during and after the game, threatened to go to the press with the names of players who regularly used racial slurs during matches. The AFL blinked and Tony Peek was charged with consulting with the Indigenous players as to the depth of the issue. What Peek heard shocked him. The AFL then introduced Rule 30 (now 35) in 1995, facilitated by Long (St Mary's) along with players like Che Cockatoo-Collins and Michael McLean (Nightcliff Tigers).

Essendon legend Michael Long in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

The seeds for this historic policy implementation were actually planted two years earlier in 1993, the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples, in round 4 at Victoria Park, Collingwood’s home ground. It was here that Nicky Winmar, having played in a rare St Kilda win over the Pies, raised his jumper and pointed at his skin due to the racial abuse he and Gilbert McAdam (South Kangaroos/Waratahs) had received that day. McAdam was probably more the focus for the crowd's agitation given he had kicked five goals that day in a best-on-ground performance. Winmar chimed in with one. From this famous photograph taken by Wayne Ludbey, many conversations/lectures/debates about race and sport in Australia and globally have started. The media blew up for months in the aftermath as it continually unpacked what the photo meant. In the aftermath, the AFL promised it would get better in dealing with things. It got distracted and put the issue on the back-burner, only firing up again when Long would not bend.     

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If we go back even further still, the connections of race, racism, football and politics all are bubbling away in the NT much earlier. For professional historian, Dr Matthew Stephen, much of the football story in the NT starts with Darwin:

In the early 20th century, Darwin was a diverse, but deeply divided society. It comprised a small white minority and significant Aboriginal, Chinese, Malay, Filipino, and other smaller communities. During the 1920s, sport, and in particular Australian football, was a powerful catalyst for change in a society characterised and defined by racism, and prejudice.

Sitting on the phone with Matthew and Michael Barfoot, another NT football historian, one feels the grip of the footy stories in both men's lives and the ways that local history, especially when it comes to racial divisions in town as they relate to football, are pivotal to understanding where things are now. It is hard to believe, in stark contrast to NT football today, for a time in the late 1920s, players from non-European backgrounds were barred from playing in Darwin football.   

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Could it be that the standard set for Australian football in regard to equity and respect did not actually come from the sensibility of the AFL or from a Canberra green paper or from the latest pedagogical whiz-bangery concocted by some education minister, but from Northern Territory football? As Stephen says quite simply "McAdam and Long's actions are recent examples of the continuing tradition of Territory footballers fighting for recognition and rights on and off the football field".

For the cynical and sceptical, it would be easy to explain away these things as simply being something of a coincidence. Perhaps they are? Perhaps they circle back as if by some fortuitous seasonal quirk to remind us of the importance of football in our lives – a fact made even more salient given the threat that COVID-19 has posed in 2020. But it is also with that threat that the AFL and especially First Nations' players over time have had to adapt to survive. It is then through this process of adaption and survival that we learn to live. Live with one another. Live with our flaws. Live with our fears. It's how we then choose to deal with these things that will ultimately determine who we are as individuals and as a society. What are we prepared to put up with and what do we need to do to ensure the game we love can be passed on to those who will come after us and judge us on what we did or did not do.

>> 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.