In summary

Opinion for The Age by Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement Professor, John Evans.

The AFL has long positioned itself at the forefront of progressive social causes, with Indigenous players in particular being held up as pillars of our beloved game. However, as we embark on another Dreamtime at the ’G, we face an uncomfortable truth: the number of Indigenous players is on the decline, and this trend threatens the very integrity of the game.

In 2020, the AFL had 87 Indigenous players; today, that number has shrunk to 71. Recruiters tell me that this number is likely to fall to the mid-60s next year due to retirements and a lack of talent coming through, and worsen from there

The downward trend is evident, and more troubling still is the stark lack of Indigenous representation in under-16 squads nationwide. Here the issues begin early and are deeply entrenched within the recruitment process. The number of Indigenous kids being drafted tells us that we’re far from where we need to be.

Drawing from my experience as a former high-performance rugby coach and researcher of Indigenous representation in elite sports, one clear pattern has emerged: recruiting Indigenous players is often perceived as more challenging than selecting their non-Indigenous peers.

The reluctance to draft Indigenous players can partly be traced back to persistent stereotypes. For example, young, standout Indigenous talent who come from tough backgrounds are often unfairly labelled as “difficult” or “non-committal” when logistical hurdles, such as lack of transport, cause them to miss training sessions.

More unsettling still, the recruitment process can ignore cultural nuance. A quiet Indigenous teen might be viewed as a non-contributor because shyness is misunderstood as a lack of commitment or leadership capability. The recruitment criteria isn’t an exact science and certainly doesn’t take into account cultural differences in demeanour and expression, in a setting where bravado can be seen as dedication.

This bias also extends into the metrics we use to judge potential players. The AFL’s overreliance on fitness and aptitude tests, which prioritise physical benchmarks over football skills, often fails to capture these young athletes’ true capabilities and potential. That’s true for anyone who comes to the game differently. Beep tests, sprint tests and vertical jump tests are central to the drafting process, though many football greats of the past would not meet the standards of today.

Meanwhile, anointing players at the age of 15 or 16 disregards a vast pool of potential talent. Players not in the elite pathway system by this age are often considered lost to the game. Similarly, players from outside the private school circuits – specifically the Associated Grammar Schools of Victoria and Associated Public Schools pipelines that feed into the AFL – are overlooked as well.

In facing these challenges, the AFL must also reckon with its own history of racism, a factor that can’t be overlooked when discussing the barriers Indigenous players face.

The 2021 Do Better report highlighted systemic issues within clubs like Collingwood, which – after addressing a raft of challenges – brought home the flag just two years later. When Magpie Bobby Hill expressed his gratitude by saying, “Thank you for making me and my family welcome here”, after winning the Norm Smith Medal, it resonated deeply with young Indigenous players.

On the other side of the coin, when players such as Jamarra Ugle-Hagan feel compelled to point to their skin on the field in response to abuse from the crowd – a gesture echoing the famous stance taken by AFL legend Nicky Winmar more than 30 years ago – it sends a disheartening message.

There has been a patchwork of progress across the AFL. Some coaches and clubs have made admirable steps forward, but overall the league must expand its vision. We need more than just token gestures of support for the future of this game.

Research shows that “hot housing” talent – creating intense, high pressure and often isolated environments for emerging players in accelerated training environments – may not be in the best interests of the sport or the players themselves. This approach disadvantages young Indigenous players in particular, who may never have left their communities before.

The AFL and clubs must employ more Indigenous people across a range of positions within the administration, not just as player talent. Another approach is to support more Indigenous player agents, such as rapper and Essendon fan Adam Briggs, aka Senator Briggs, who is seeking accreditation.

Casting the net wider and connecting more closely with communities should be core to the AFL’s strategy, as is the ongoing professional development for recruiters and agents around cultural competency. Clubs should view engaging with Indigenous players and refocusing on regional clubs as intrinsic to the player pathway, rather than afterthoughts. The AFL needs to reconsider the role of the draft and direct its attention to opportunities that widen participation.

Meaningful changes in recruitment practices and club cultures are essential. This issue extends beyond mere fairness; it’s about enriching the game by embracing a wider range of talents and widening the recruitment funnel to include more exciting players. As we stop to enjoy the Sir Doug Nicholls Round, it’s vital to remember: Indigenous players have not only played a pivotal role in the history of the AFL but are also key to defining its future.

This article was originally published in The Age.

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