Kudos to the AFL for Sunday’s Alice Springs match.
For all the criticism the administrators of the nation’s top sport attract, this was a true small-town event for the fans in Australia’s Red Centre.
To see AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan chatting to senior Aboriginal ladies in Alice Springs’ Lasseters Casino the night before the game, while other high-profile football types rubbed shoulders with locals, you knew it was not your ordinary big city match.
The cliche about Melbourne is that Australian football is a religion there but in Aboriginal communities across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, it is bigger than that.
The high number of young indigenous men in in the AFL – about 10 per cent – who are role models to those communities is a positive story for all the negative coverage of Aboriginal people and the shocking disadvantage and despair.
McLachlan saw for himself at a local game on Saturday what many Australians don’t: the tremendous skill, bravery and speed found in games featuring only remote Aboriginal footballers, many of them lightly built, playing in often extreme heat.
McLachlan visited Mutitjulu, located at the base of Uluru. He was there on the first anniversary of the Uluru Statement calling for Aboriginal people to be guaranteed a constitutional “voice” in parliament, which was announced at Mutitjulu.
Reports of rampant child abuse and neglect in Mutitjulu sparked the Howard government’s controversial intervention in 2007.
The fact that a decade on the community has joined the remote APY lands Far North West Sports League is no small feat.
“It really is a national game for everyone, football is as important as anything in the centre of Australia and we should be having a game here,” McLachlan told AAP.
“We get a lot out of it, as much as the locals do. If you talk to leaders in the community and others, it is ‘the thing’, it is at the heart of so many communities out here, and we want to give a bit of leadership and aspiration for the boys and girls.”
Aboriginal people represented a high proportion of the nearly 7000 people at Alice Springs’ Traeger Park and indigenous Adelaide player Eddie Betts was the fans’ favourite during his team’s loss to Melbourne.
His Aboriginal teammate Wayne Milera, whose artist uncle Roger Rigney designed this week’s indigenous round jumper, said for him the Alice Springs match “was also a great chance to share indigenous culture with non-indigenous people”.
Indigenous culture was shown on Seven Network’s broadcast through a curtain-raiser match between mostly Aboriginal Top End Darwin and Central Australian teams, which Alice Springs resident and former AFL star Gilbert McAdam said would be the biggest day in many of the young mens’ lives.
A pre-match ceremony featured a caterpillar dreaming Yipirinya dance while Melbourne’s theme song was performed in the local Arrente language.
But for all the goodwill and positive feelings on Sunday, does it actually achieve anything tangible?
Youth crime in Alice Springs has deteriorated to the point where visitors are advised to get taxis at night rather than walk home for anything longer than a 5 to 10-minute walk back to their hotel.
The federal Sport and Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie said governments at all levels needed to get a lot more serious and acknowledge the power sport had and “to harness that for more than just the game”.
That included turning around young lives through grassroots sport and reducing 40 per cent-plus smoking rates among indigenous people.
“With what the AFL has decided to do and several clubs making commitments here to the Territory, to take seriously their role as leaders and to give back, I think it says to the Territory we know you’re here and want to broadcast your story,” Senator McKenzie said.
There is a view that the Demons should commit to doing more in the NT as part of their commitment.
Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin, whose club receives NT government money for playing there, said: “We love coming to the Northern Territory, it is our home venue. We want to make this place a place that we come to and really thrive in.”
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