(or, Playing Footy and Negotiating Identity)
Sport and discrimination: sport, perhaps, is discriminatory. The question is not whether or not ‘discrimination’ takes place in the Australian sporting context, but, how it takes place and what kind of face discrimination shows. I find ‘discrimination’ a somewhat intimidating word; a word that provokes defensive responses. I find ‘racism’ too to be problematic: in the Australian sporting context, and public discourse more generally, debates quickly turn to whether or not a statement was ‘racist’ and whether or not the person is racist. So often the person who has uttered the perhaps-racist comment ends up being defended and apologised for as being not racist; that his words were taken out of context; that he is really good mate, a good bloke, enjoys a joke and a few beers, is mates with so-and-so – [insert name of blackfeller] – and anyway, it wasn’t that racist was it?
Too often, the back-story of the person’s comments are ignored, the implications of the racist comments are forgotten and, moreover the narrative, interpretation and perspective of the intended target of the racist comments are given little air-time. Racism and racist people have few friends, but, the accommodation and perpetuation of racism and racist attitudes persists. As Matthew Klugman has pointed out, in the context of Aussie rules football, it is an almost weekly occurrence – and this is only in the exhaustively –covered AFL. My perspective on racism in the context of footy – i.e. ‘the Australian game’ – is that racism is intrinsic to the sport since the discourse and practice of footy involves a negotiation of postcolonial identities. That is, footy, and Australian sport is an encounter between Aboriginal identities and those identities which are framed as imagined as coming from some kind of settler, Anglo-identity. Both identities are homogenised and generalised. Aboriginal identity is often given a privileged position in the sense that it reduces a player’s identity to only being about his Aboriginality. This essay will look at the stories of two present day present-day players – Shane Edwards and Herritier Lumumba – whose identities have developed throughout the past several years. Edwards is from Adelaide and is of Arrernta descent, while Lumumba was born in Brazil to father of Congolese background, and grew up in Perth.
Shane Edwards is in his ninth year of playing for the Richmond Football Club: he has played 155 games and has been a regularly member of the senior team since 2007. For most of his career, Richmond has been unsuccessful and he hasn’t received much media coverage in the footy press. He has been a player on Richmond fans have noticed, but, even in this context, he has been maligned as being not hard enough or good enough. Attitudes towards him have only shifted in the last couple of years, a time that has also coincided with his growing public assertiveness and his stated interest in his own background and his identification with his Aboriginal identity. His father, Greg Edwards, a prominent South Australian former player and footy administrator, has stated, “[he] is not the self-promoting type, but his background is a great source of pride to him and he’s always identified with it. I know how much it would mean to him if he ever got selected to join an indigenous all-stars squad” (Wilson 2012, The Age).
For the early parts of his career at Richmond, Edwards was not recognised for his Aboriginality. Perhaps this was because of his unassuming and shy demeanour. Perhaps it was also because the Richmond Football Club had more prominent players who could very easily be identified as being ‘Aboriginal’. Aboriginal identity is linked to being ‘from the country’, or, ‘the outback’ – particularly northern and central Australia, to being of black or dark skin. But it is not only this, being Aboriginal has also specific footy connotations. Aboriginal Australians are assumed to have freakish skills, to possess a sixth sense in which they can perform skills that players of non-aboriginal background cannot perform. In innumerable cases the word ‘magic’ is applied to the skills or actions of Aboriginal players on the field. This, I believe is an abbreviation for ‘black magic’ and thus has effect of referring to the supposed better skills of black players and also to their background as being from a supposedly homogenous group of people who are un-Christian heathens.
Shane Edwards, being of light-skin and from the city of Adelaide, and being a player whose style of play has so-often been considered as workmanlike and unsensational, has defied the stereotype of what it means to be an Aboriginal footballer. He says, ‘my friends knew that my dad was a good footballer and thus they thought that I inherited it [my aboriginal identity and skills as a footballer] from him’. But, his Aboriginal background is from his mother, who was, by the way, an excellent basketball player. Edwards skills as a footballer can be seen in his father’s style of play, and also to that of a basketball player, with his leap and light-footed-ness. The coach of Richmond, Damien Hardwick, tuned into this narrative of identifying Edward’s Aboriginality, by stating on the brink of a milestone game how Edwards brings ‘little bit of magic’ to the game. As usual, Hardwick made the statement, full of conviction and without the slightest recognition that it could be simplistic and patronising to equate Edwards’ skills and contribution to the team to being a result of his Aboriginal background. By comparison, Edwards’ German background is rarely remarked upon and commentators don’t comment on his Teutonic methodology and thoroughness.
Heritier Lumumba currently plays for the struggling Melbourne Demons as a running defender with often the task of ‘breaking the lines’ and setting up attacks. He has an attacking playing style and is regarded as being rather creative for a defender, a role that is often negating and reactive. Lumumba, when still using the name Harry O’Brien, was a successful and popular player with Collingwood Football Club, the club with the largest supporter base in Victoria. He was part of Collingwood’s premiership winning team of 2010. Since this time, Lumumba has confronted and been involved in some ‘difficult issues’, a ‘darkness’ in his words. Lumumba has both spoken to the media about his difficulties and at the same time asked for his privacy to be respected; during his time at Collingwood, he was given time off due to the personal problems he was facing. Lumumba’s issues were being discussed in the media at a time when problems of depression were being increasingly put under the AFL-media spotlight. Lumumba was confronting issues regarding his personal identity, having re-adopted his birth name and professional issues: a conflict with his coach and possibly other players regarding what he regarded as sexual abuse. The conflicts with his coach and team-mates has never been discussed openly.
Perhaps, however, the clearest example of Lumumba’s position was in relation to his confronting of the Collingwood Football Club’s president regarding his comments made on a popular radio. In the wake of a fan calling Adam Goodes an ‘ape’ at a Collingwood-Sydney game, the president of the club then associated Goodes with the promotion of the film King Kong. McGuire, the president, is also a popular, shall we say, ‘media personality’. The racist statement of McGuire was immediately dead-batted by the co-host, Luke Darcy, a prominent exp-player and current commentator. McGuire, given his prominent standing in the footy-industry and Australian public life had ample chance to back-track, apologise and grovel. McGuire, for example, was given opportunity to make excuses for his racist comments on the show, AFL 360, stating that he had ‘zoned out’, was tired and that he was ‘thinking of something else entirely’ and what he had meant had come out ‘ham-fisted’. He sought to deflect his racist comments by mentioning that he had long-campaigned against racism. Earlier in the day, Lumumba reacted to his Club’s president in the following manner:
“It doesn’t matter if you are a school teacher, a doctor, or even the president of my football club I will not tolerate racism, nor should we as a society. I’m extremely disappointed with Eddie’s comments and do not care what position he holds, I disagree with what came out of his mouth this morning on radio. To me, Eddie’s comments are reflective of common attitudes that we as a society face. To me, Australia is very casual with racism. In my opinion race relations in this country is [sic] systematically a national disgrace and we have a long way to go to reach a more harmonious and empathetic society”
Edwards and Lumumba are contrasting characters: the former has never been given much media attention, but has slowly been publicly identified with his Aboriginal identity. Lumumba, on the other hand, has made a very public transition from ‘Harry O’Brien’ and being a premiership player in well-supported and cashed-up Collingwood, to a defender in low-profile and struggling Melbourne Demons. Edwards has spoken of the enriching process of learning about his grandmother and how it has a positive impact on his career as a professional footballer. Lumumba, since the beginning of his career was known for being ‘the first Brazilian-born’ AFL player; a position that was no doubt convenient for the AFL in terms of promoting the ‘diversity’ of professional players. Whereas Edwards has been able to engage and explore his Aboriginality in relative anonymity, Lumumba has had to negotiate public scrutiny. Many of the responses to his public-identity negotiation have been racist and unashamedly referred to his blackness. He is right to say that Australia is lacking in empathy: a comment that avoids the rather anxiety-building call of ‘racism’. The debate on racism, moreover led to the unusual occurrence of a player holding his president accountable for his actions. The disagreement between player and Collingwood’s culture was a factor in Lumumba leaving for the less-promising team of Melbourne. Debates on racism, thus do have an impact on the potential for on-field success.
Edwards and Lumumba have shown that identity is an ongoing process; something that one can learn from and use as a source for reasoning in their behaviour and interaction with others. Lumumba has been outspoken in standing up to racism and other forms of prejudice. Whether or not he has been successful or consistent in doing so, is an issue for someone else. Edwards, on the other hand, has been more private in his deeds. These two players show the complexity and openness of identity, it is the AFL however, that has positioned the ‘origins of the game’ as being closed. Their position, is that Australian Rules Football, a sport administered by the Australian Football League, is essentially an off-shoot of Rugby and was developed by Tom Wills and others in the 1850s in the Richmond area of Melbourne. This view was conveyed in the 2008 book The Australian Game of Football, published by the AFL. This book denies the possibility of Australian rules football having any relation to Aboriginal football, known as marngrook or mingorm – in the area where Tom Wills grew up. Those who argue against indigenous influence on the development of the game, argue that those who support the opposing view read history backwards and the burden is on them to show ‘evidence’ of Aboriginal involvement. While those who argue that Aboriginal games did influence Australian rules football rely on oral histories and the biography of Tom Wills.
The AFL is strongly aligned with an orthodox reading of Australian history. The game is promoted as ‘Australia’s game’ in a country in which the ‘English’ games of cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League are popular. The conformity of the AFL with mainstream politics is no more evident than in the case of the celebration of Anzac Day. And, the current ‘Australian of the Year’, is none other than Adam Goodes, the most prominent Aboriginal Australian footballer, who took a public stance against racist abuse. The orthodoxy remains that ‘our game’ is one that is invented by a larrikin and alcoholic sportsman, but that it is a game which has been greatly contributed to by the ongoing involvement of Aboriginal Australians who possess ‘magic’ skills. This positions them as recent participants to the game in which they have been begrudgingly accepted and then, through political correctness, celebrated. Racist abuse, I believe, has simply merged into being ‘racist celebration’.
Caroline Wilson, “Living the Dream”, The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/living-the-dream-20120518-1yw32.html
Edwards’ All Star Experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owKzQMDGw1c
Krakouer Brother Highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRlzsdTBQy8
Matt Rendell, Footy Classified Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTh-3-4iIMU
Jason Mifsud, Marngrook Footy Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLENIo1mMss
Eddie McGuire’s racist comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wujXoSlKhq4
On the Stolen Generation:
Creative Spirits on sport: http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/sport/
*This paper was originally presented at the Sport and Prejudice conference in London, organised by Sunderland University.
**The photograph used at the top of the page is by Wayne Ludbey; probably one of my favourite portraits, of well, I have to say, my favourite player. No shame in being a fan, eh?