The day you’re drafted into the AFL is the day you should be preparing for your life after footy.
It’s harsh, but sage advice. And it’s advice that Indigenous Players Alliance chair Des Headland wants Aboriginal players to take on board more than anyone else.
“I’ve been told for a very long time the day you’re drafted is the day you should be preparing yourself to transition out of footy later in life,” he told the National Indigenous Times.
“You’re transitioning from the day you walk in the club.”
He said while the AFL, AFL Players Association and clubs themselves offered programs and services to assist players with that transition, it was not translating to the league’s Indigenous players.
“The issue is how can we, IPA members and Indigenous past players, create the opportunity to get these programs delivered to Indigenous players … hence why the IPA was set up,” the 39-year-old, who won a premiership with the Brisbane Lions, said.
Headland said outreach to Indigenous players was the key thing missing.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
“We want to work collaboratively with the AFL and the AFLPA to be that outreach service. To say, look we’ve been through the system we know the system; our members haven’t accessed what’s available to them.”
While Headland said there had been success stories that should be celebrated, it was important players who might be missing out on programs were reached.
“With every success story there’s a lot more unfortunate failures in terms of after football life. Football only lasts a certain amount of your life,” he said.
“It’s about how we can be that outreach service that’s gone through the system.”
He said the IPA will act as an advocate group to ensure Indigenous players are using the programs and services available to them as well as ensuring their clubs and the AFLPA are supporting players as best they can.
As the chief executive of Indigenous occupational health service Spartan First, Headland has found his career post-AFL. But he admits it took time.
“I personally just took opportunity after opportunity and never really said no for an answer,” he said.
Headland dabbled in a number of industries to figure out his passion, one of which put him in the Canberra bubble.
He spent 12 months as a policy adviser to former WA senator Zhenya “Dio” Wang of Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party.
“I would never have thought in a million years I’d be working in Canberra, as an adviser to a politician.
“But that happened,” he laughed.
“It just opened my eyes to Australian politics and the way we govern as a country … that really pushed me to try and set up business.
“So, that’s kind of why I do what I do now.”
In his role as IPA chair, Headland said part of the way forward was increasing Indigenous representation in the AFL industry.
“Why are there only two Indigenous AFL coaches? Why is there no one in administrative roles and in senior level roles in the AFL?” he said.
“We need to look at how 14 per cent make up the game on the field but less than 1 per cent make up the industry in employment.”
As the AFL rethinks ties with Rio Tinto after the fallout from the mining company’s Juukan Gorge blasts, it’s looking like prospective Indigenous players are losing out the most.
Losing Rio Tinto as a partner may also mean the AFL loses a $1.5 million Indigenous program that it sponsored.
Headland believes this move would push the industry back even further.
“I’m hoping the AFL have something else up their sleeve to counteract that because if that’s lost, we’ve just gone back 20-30 years,” he said.
By Hannah Cross