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How WA's Indigenous legacy in the AFL has continued to diminish in recent years

Andrew Mathieson -

Revelations that Indigenous footballers from Western Australia – once the historic fertile heartland of Aboriginal icons playing Australian rules – are perilously dropping out of the game has left number crunchers at AFL headquarters quietly scratching their heads.

While the numbers across most states have also fallen, forcing the AFL to act, a severe decline in the West alone that has produced the most iconic First Nation names has key stakeholders asking questions in the search of answers to fix a growing crisis.

The playing calibre of the likes of Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Barry Cable, the Krakouers, Stephen Michael, Nicky Winmar, the Materas and Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin may never be seen again should a lack of Indigenous talent not reach the next level.

A long way from the Nullabor, the Pilbara, the Kimberleys, the Wheatbelt and in Perth itself, the AFL Indigenous department recently invited representatives from all of the 18 clubs to an educational presentation for a ‘cultural session and discussion’.

The presentation to list managers and recruiting scouts advised clubs about boosting their number of Indigenous players through the draft, academies and the AFL’s own ongoing programs.

An AFL spokesperson acting on behalf of the AFL education presenters Torres Strait Islands woman Tanya Hosch, Anmatyerre and Maranunggu woman Narelle Long, Wirangu and Kokatha man Paul Vanderbergh and Dr Sean Gorman has played down fears Indigenous players were not connecting after years of stronger representation.

"The number of Indigenous players on AFL lists have remained consistent over the past four years,” the spokesperson told National Indigenous Times, “with a slight reduction in 2024, and we are focused on growing this number for future years”.

While recent data on the number of Indigenous players rose from 83 in 2018 to 84 in 2019 and peaked at 87 in 2020, it began to slip back at a similar rate to 83 in 2021 and 81 in 2022 in line with the pandemic before a noticeable drop to 77 in 2023 and just 71 this year.

The AFL were keen to point out part of its engagement and identifying talent methods that includes both the Woomeras and Flying Boomerangs tournaments that brings on both 25 female and 25 male Indigenous footballers into an annual training group well before draft eligibility.

“We’re working closely with stakeholders across the industry to grow our Indigenous talent pathway,” the spokesperson added, highlighting that Vandenburgh was hired as Indigenous and multicultural player engagement manager and Long was appointed to be the diversity talent programs manager to address recent growing issues.

The AFL also points to its National Indigenous Academy that includes a target of 80-90 male and female Indigenous footballers each for a year-long online program, seven development days that collaborates with state academies and under-16/under-18 mainstream talent pathway programs and state visits for 100 additional footballers.

A new National Diversity Academy has also been introduced that brings the AFL’s top 15 Indigenous and top 15 multicultural players together for 17 and 18-year-olds in the lead up to the draft.

“This year we have a strong focus on transitioning and retaining Indigenous talent in regional, club and state talent pathway programs across the country," the spokesperson said.

But one mother of a talented Indigenous West Australian youth said the unfortunate experience that her son Jacob Simpson has faced has been anything but engaging.

Meeda Derschow, who lives in Northampton that is 600 kilometres north of Perth, had sent her son to the private school, Wesley College, to allow the current 17-year-old a chance to live out a dream of playing football at the top of his ability onto the next level.

The first step was to play in the WAFL Colts under-18s competition this year, but multiple clubs have shut down his chances.

Without a head start through one of the AFL’s active pathways for junior development across the six states and two territories, Simpson’s chances of a club drafting or listing the forward/midfielder remains slim and amid fears he won’t be identified.

“He has attempted this past Christmas break to make the Perth Demons Colts’ team, as he was invited after playing for school boys ones (first XVIII) last year at 16 years old,” she said.

“Despite Perth knowing that he does not live in Perth, and is only a boarder at Rotary Residential College where he attends Wesley College, they still expected him to attend all preseason trainings.

“He has cousins, who have been dropped from the same club due to not being able to attend the full preseason trainings in the past few years.

“This preseason is held over the Christmas break; most boys who board, this is their break to finally go home.

“After being away majority of the year in Perth, nor do they have a family network or support for the boys to stay for six-plus weeks.

“He also was invited by East Fremantle futures’ squad the year before, but (was) dropped because of the same reason.”

Simpson was only able to attend the first four weeks – and he did – “due to the family he had supporting him were going away”.

The young Wajarri/Banjima man is also forced to play any sort of club football, which is a rarity when the private school season is not playing, back home at Northampton.

“So he had to wait to be able to go back to his boarding house, then Jacob attended the remaining weeks of training,” she said.

Simpson’s mum has tried to search for answers from the powers that be. But she says no solution to his dilemma that many of the Indigenous students face has been resolved.

“They expect communication to be solely through the player,” she said.

“Jacob has let them know each time why he’s not present because he is away (back) at home.

“I think they see this as him being not dedicated or not taking it seriously.”

The decline experienced by a number of Indigenous hopefuls that is listed in the latest figures but not broken down into states or territories is being felt in Western Australia more than others.

Back in 2006 until 2008, 24 of the 44 Indigenous players were drafted across the three years from Western Australia alone.

In last year’s draft, just four West Australians – Lance Collard from Subiaco who was taken at pick 28 in the national draft by St Kilda, Mitchell Edwards from Peel Thunder who was selected at pick 32 by Geelong, Lawson Humphries from Swan Districts who was taken at the second-last pick 63 by Geelong, and Coen Humphries from Perth who was claimed by West Coast as its Category B rookie – found AFL homes in comparison.

Even more worrying signs for football in the state that last year there was only just a single Indigenous player in the state’s under-16 squad for the national championship.

The brightest Indigenous prospect for the 2024 draft is Malakai Champion of Subiaco, which a number of recruiters reportedly have suggested Champion by name may not turn into a champion by nature by not even being pulled out of the names in the draft.

Retired champion Eddie Betts has voiced concerns a number of times that Indigenous players do not feel culturally safe in the AFL system.

“We as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we still face a lot of barriers in this country and the issues that we face we have to continue to grow and to move forward,” Betts remarked at the 2023 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sportsperson of the Year awards last November.

“In the Communities, we start here (holds hand low to the ground) and everyone else starts here (holds hand higher).

“That’s no one in particular’s fault; that’s inter-generational wealth.

“We have to work our arse off just to be equal and to be excellent, we’ve to go above and beyond.

“I keep telling young Aboriginal kids, continue to work hard because talent can only take you so far – you’ve got to put the work behind you.

“I say any goal, any dream should be achievable, and chase that dream because that dream may not chase you back.”

Betts spoke at the MCG function about his own experiences stepping into an AFL club and the AFL system back in 2005 with Carlton.

He talks about how daunting it was to first sit across in the dressing room from many of the game’s champions and just feel culturally disconnected.

“I look back and I didn’t want any Aboriginal player coming into the system feel like I did,” Betts said.

“I want them to feel safe within the AFL system and feel a safe space within a club.”

After Betts retired following 350 matches including 132 appearances mid-to-late in his career at Adelaide before returning for two more years at the Blues, one of the game’s great crumbing forwards said “what our kids need most is better opportunity”.

Betts had already began in his own foundation to give First Nations teenagers a head start that include spending a week in Melbourne soaking in the AFL culture and also playing a high-standard game against a similar-aged representative side.

“Hopefully this program can give them that exposure to chase their dreams,” he said.

Betts has quietly met with AFL boss Andrew Dillon this year to discuss better methods and improved systems to hopefully set up and exceed 100 Indigenous players in the competition.

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