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AFL call on clubs to bolster a slump in Indigenous playing numbers

Andrew Mathieson -

Clubs have submitted their own suggestions on possible ways of increasing numbers of Indigenous players entering the AFL after figures indicated an unfathomable decline of late.

The concern comes after just four Indigenous players were drafted last year, down by half from 12 months earlier, and continuing a drop off every year throughout the past four years.

The recent feedback, as part of the latest AFL club survey, was only submitted to Docklands headquarters at the end of last week, but the list of their ideas to bolster a greater representation from First Nations football communities for the time being remains confidential.

The AFL had written to clubs about recruiting issues, including Northern Academies zoning, father/son rules, and Next Generation Academy programs that has the deepest focus on Indigenous talent with their incentives, all to address a competitive balance review.

The alarming trend on the lack of Indigenous engagement, even prior to the results of the 2023 national draft, had quickly prompted AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon last year to examine strengthening the competition's diversity policies.

A result of Dillion's personal investigation before he took over from Gillon McLachlan in the key job from a background in game development was to backtrack on previous AFL decisions that undermined the conditions that govern Next Generation academies.

"It's a trend we certainly don't want to continue," Dillion told Nine media at the time.

"The NGAs are an important pillar because we want a game that represents our entire country.

"In terms of the NGAs, I think we over-corrected and the formula (for more Indigenous players) lies somewhere in between."

The finger of blame for toughening up the use of academy points towards drafting the next Aboriginal star was directed towards the Western Bulldogs who were able to shift the No.32 pick overall into the 2020 draft first selection to call out Jamarra Ugle-Hagan's name.

Dillion acknowledged the competition as a whole overreacted to this strategic move after clubs have been prevented from taking their Next Generation Academy players without trading for picks unless they fall outside the top 40 in the national draft.

This has since been changed to exclude academy prospects that are named in the first round of future drafts.

The AFL now says it's open to the clubs, which innovatively can lift numbers of Indigenous players to come into the competition, and will incentivise the leaders for the development of the Indigenous talents via the draft value index points system.

A snapshot of recent seasons has been enough to change the AFL Indigenous pathway.

The harsh realities of the situation is that 34 Indigenous players from 2019 until 2023 have come in – excluding the four at last year's drafts – but 44 in return, including some of the very same draftees during that four-year-period, either have been delisted or retired.

Recruiters anecdotally also speak of a sizeable decline in the representation of an Indigenous heartland of Western Australia in their under-18 and under-16 sides.

It is also commonly acknowledged that despite an AFL policy recommending that all clubs appoint at least one Indigenous board member, only eight of the 18 clubs have followed through on the edict.

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