On Wednesday afternoon, Western Bulldogs AFLW captain Katie Brennan and the AFL released a joint statement, saying that they’d reached an agreement on how to “resolve their differences” following Katie Brennan’s suspension for “rough conduct” for a tackle in what was the Doggies’ second last game for the season. Her suspension for the last game – the Grand Final – as well as the first game of next year’s season, caused quite the stir, and it was pleasing to see Brennan take up the fight for gender equality in the AFL workplace! But her trip to the Human Rights Commission is now no longer needed, with the AFL scrapping her ban for next year and moving towards figuring out a more equitable system for determining the repercussions for illegal play.
Indeed, differences – often unfortunately intractable – have shaped the history of footy in this country. On 15 September 1881, the Bendigo Advertiser reported, in a column titled “Football, or Riotous Brutality” on a match between the Bendigo and Sandhurst clubs in which the players were “utterly deficient of such necessary attributes to those who would like to be called young ‘men’.” There were threats of broken bones, assaults on opposition players, and ignoring of play. Things got so bad that the paper exclaimed that “if matches between the Bendigo and Sandhurst clubs are to be attended by such riotous behaviour as was witnessed yesterday, it would be far better if the two teams never met at all.”
And indeed, the violent behaviour was not limited to the players. The Advertiser narrated that the ground where they played – the Upper Reserve – “was yesterday converted into a field on which badly brought up boys, allowed to indulge ad labium in their most wicked propensities, conducted themselves no better than savages who had never heard the word civilization. The behaviour of the larrikins… is indescribable. Not only did they yell and hoot, and curse, utterly regardless of those within hearing, but they showed an inclination, in their mad excitement, to assault those players for whom they entertained a dislike.”
Alongside Brennan’s actions, this week brought April 17th, the 25th anniversary of Nicky Winmar’s famous declaration that he was “black and proud to be black” at Victoria Park. As described by historians Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, having played one of the best games of his career, alongside fellow St Kilda Aboriginal player Gilbert McAdam (the two of them got the 3 and 2 in the Brownlow votes that day), at the end of the game Winmar lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin. Helped by the photography skills of Wayne Ludbey, one of our game’s, and our country’s, most iconic images was thereby created. Both men had been subjected to racist abuse all game – McAdam’s father, Charlie, a member of the Stolen Generations, had had to leave the ground “in tears”, unable to listen to the abuse his son was receiving. In the aftermath of a game where they made clear that they were “not going to put up with this crap,” the two men faced death threats and their careers were forever affected (The Guardian, April 17, 2018).
But they also kickstarted a modern movement by Aboriginal footballers which continues to the present, fighting the racism of spectators, players, and officials within the AFL. That movement stems from a longer history, of course. The first Aboriginal player to play VFL/AFL was Joe Johnson, a half-back flanker who played for Fitzroy from 1904-1906, including in the 1904 and 1905 premiership sides, before playing for Brunswick and Northcote. When he died in 1934, his funeral took place on April 24th (84 years ago this coming Tuesday) at 2.30pm at 43 Barry St Carlton – then a private residence we believe, and now part of a student housing block just behind the Melbourne Law School.
May we, and our teams, all have weekends as defiant, proud, and noteworthy as Brennan, Winmar and Johnson (while avoiding the violence of Bendigo and Sandhurst!),