GLEN SPEERING enjoys birds, wildflowers, Simpsons quotes, and umpiring grassroots footy. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER he addresses the racism in AFL from the top of the league to the grassroots games.
LIKE most Western Australian boys, I played football as a kid.
But as a kid, in a middle class suburb of Perth, I was largely shielded from interaction with indigenous footballers.
When we did play against indigenous footballers, it was against teams predominantly made up of indigenous kids.
These were regarded as troubled teams and clubs with a history of poor behaviour.
Whether or not this is true, is probably a matter of interpretation.
What is true though, is the undercurrent of overt and subtle racism that was apparent, both through coaches, fellow players, and probably actually me.
It wasn’t until I moved to Darwin, where playing in mixed racial teams was absolutely the norm — and everything else was out of the ordinary, that I had some appreciation for the genuine struggles that indigenous people faced.
Even in a sport where indigenous footballers are over-represented both in numbers and performance, the struggles that individuals face to be able to lace up are not well understood or appreciated.
But for me the dynamic really hit home after I began umpiring in the Northern Territory and I realised just how pervasive disadvantage can be for indigenous Australians.
One match will remain in my mind for as long as my memory holds up.
I was umpiring a junior game on a Friday night in the muggy wet season. One team was made up mainly of boarders from remote communities.
It was nothing out of the ordinary—just another game.
Both teams had extremely talented players.
One such player encroached on the mark I had set.
I called him back, but he didn’t listen.
I called him back again.
I probably thought something in my head before paying a 50m penalty.
It happened again a few minutes later.
I thought he was deliberately being disrespectful.
It wasn’t until he was caught stone cold holding the ball, with his teammates screaming at him from two metres away that I realised he wasn’t just stone cold holding the ball — he was also stone cold deaf.
Almost all indigenous kids that are born in remote communities suffer some kind of hearing damage.
Through no fault of their own, simple things that most of us take for granted, like listening in class, holding down a job, or hearing your team mates, becomes an enormous struggle.
And once again the AFL is shrouded in controversy regarding one of its superstar indigenous players.
Nothing is more certain than the sun rising in the east, than a season of AFL with a racism scandal.
Whether it is poor spectator behaviour, antiquated Neolithic opinions spouted by “leaders” in the AFL community, the damage, the targets and the causes are the same.
It’s no secret that on-field racism has reduced as more indigenous players fill spots in teams, and that barriers within certain clubs have been reduced. The players understand.
They know and appreciate what people have had to overcome to get where they have.
But spectators and the broader AFL don’t.
For every Adam Goodes that is booed, there are thousands of kids that will never have the opportunity to hear.
For every Eddie Betts, there are hundreds of kids that can’t afford boots, can’t get to games and can’t afford to play.
For every Chris Lewis there are thousands of white people who can afford to take a cheap shot from the safety behind a fence.
For every Nicky Winmar, there are hundreds of thousands of indigenous Australians proud of their history — fighting for acceptance and understanding of their struggles.