“As soon as we could stand up we were playing footy … I’m crazy on rugby league since as long as I can remember.”
The story of Danny* starts in his home town in regional NSW, where rugby league is a “religion”, where a young Aboriginal man need look no further than his own home for sporting inspiration and support. That “religion”, strongly influenced by Aboriginal culture, took Danny all the way to the NRL, the code’s elite competition.
Alvin* grew up in Darwin, part of a “big footy family” in a community where playing Aussie Rules was not so much a matter of choice as just “what you do”. Alvin also made it to the top; drafted into the AFL at age 20, he had a long and successful career.
Both young men are among 16 elite footballers included in a new book, Stories of Indigenous Success in Australian Sport: Journeys to the AFL and the NRL, by Professor John Evans, a sports scientist and social researcher at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and New Zealand academic Richard Light.
Professor Evans says he and Light set out to determine the factors that enable male, Indigenous athletes to become elite level players in Australian football and rugby league.
If we talk about the first time I actually picked up a football … under 10s at only the ripe age of five years
“Despite being acutely disadvantaged in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Australians punch well above their weight in sport and particularly in Australian football and rugby league,” the authors write.
They cite statistics to underline their point: Indigenous Australians are 3 per cent of the Australian population, but 10 per cent (NRL) and 14 per cent (AFL) of the elite player population. About one in five players in the annual rugby league State of Origin series is Indigenous; typically, one in three members of the Queensland Origin team is Indigenous.
Evans says the importance of sport in many Aboriginal communities means kids enter an “apprenticeship” in their choice of elite sport from a very early age.
“There’s plenty of commentary now in both NRL and AFL about Aboriginal players having a particular style – that they’re skilful, fast, agile … and often better than their non-Indigenous counterparts,” Evans says.
“What we’re saying in this book is that yes, there is a different way of playing and that’s based on a lot of things. It’s based on the culture of where they’re from; the way sport is valued – in communities it’s a really important activity so they get encouraged and supported from an early age.
“They’re encouraged to be creative, to be skilful, to chance their arm, to do things that are quite exceptional from a very early age.”
As a result, they emerge from their long apprenticeships having played games in a plethora of sports most days of their lives.
It was about having fun … I didn’t play organised footy until later but it was like just kicking the footy around
The step up to elite level takes them into another realm, often in cities far from home and trying to adjust to the demands of highly structured training environments, Evans says. At that time, the support of their new communities – from extended family and friends, mentors and the clubs themselves – is pivotal if the players are to make their families and greater community proud of their achievements.
“It’s part of our culture to do things as a group, to enjoy each other’s company … that’s why Indigenous people play football the way they do and why they enjoy training the way they do. It takes them back to those cultural ways our people have.”
*Not his real name
Stories of Indigenous Success in Australian Sport: Journeys to the AFL and the NRL, by Richard Light and John Robert Evans, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
To read more about Sport and Exercise research at UTS, click here.