THE ADULTS STARE hard, looks of panic rip through the crowd. A curiously dressed man in clinical white clothing follows the ball with a dancer’s grace. He turns quickly between two enormous poles, faces the ground, then raises both arms and sharply points his fingers to the field. It’s a goal. People shout in communal ecstasy, while others look away, distraught.
Another Saturday at the footy with Mum, her familiar cries mimicking the overeager crowd all around us. Her exaggerated body language reminding me of the West Coast Eagles’ win in the 1992 AFL grand final. On that occasion, we watched from home: tickets for regular matches were expensive; attending a grand final was well beyond our means. Watching the Eagles trail Geelong in the first two quarters had revealed another side to Mum – full of nerves and zealous commentary every time the ball slipped through an anxious player's hands. It was the first time an interstate team had won the flag, and with the television blaring I saw Mum’s animated reaction every time the Eagles kicked a goal. She loved the game and the players, whom she affectionately called her ‘boys’.
As a kid, sitting in the brown plastic chairs at the MCG, there was something strange about the mass of people who jostled inside the vast stadium to watch grown men chase a peculiarly shaped ball. The players in tight white shorts and coloured guernseys ran around with an intensity I found a little bewildering. But the junk food I wasn’t usually allowed to eat – hot chips or a sausage roll – made up for the boredom. Mum would give me five bucks and I’d line up with hundreds of other people in the strange concrete corridor that circled the stadium, full of shop windows selling pies, ice-cream, Coke and other treats. On the train ride home back to Glen Huntly, Mum would run through the game, play by play. I’d pretend to listen, wondering when her enthusiasm would ease, the smell of hot chips lingering on my fingers.
FOOTY ECHOED THROUGH the small red-brick house we moved to after Dad left. Mum watched games on the telly live from the MCG almost religiously. By the time I was in high school, my cousin – my mother’s brother’s son, Chance Bateman – had been recruited to Hawthorn. A Noongar boy from York, a small country town in WA, was hitting it big. Family from the west rolled in on the red-eye to watch him play and I saw a new look of hope in my uncle’s eyes. The allure of AFL never grabbed me, but I understood that the ritual roused a passion in my kin that demanded respect.
In thinking about the game, it’s impossible to separate these feelings from the stadium’s location. Nestled in the elite suburb of East Melbourne, the MCG is surrounded by avenues named after early colonial settlers Brunton and Batman; Captain Cook’s Cottage is just a short walk across Wellington Parade. The stadium lies on Crown land, ground that was never alienated from the Commonwealth and remains in the estate of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. These ties are evident in the name: not Melbourne Football Ground but Melbourne Cricket Ground, after the sport the British brought with them. A game distinctly English with its neat white uniforms, leather ball and willow bat. Shrouded in exclusivity, cricket’s popularity continues today as the elite middle classes rush to put their newborns on waiting lists to become members of the prestigious Melbourne Cricket Club. Australia’s colonial past thrives while we watch footy matches played on Wurundjeri/Boon Wurrung land, in a stadium named after the invaders’ favourite sport.
The late, acclaimed Goernpil poet Lisa Bellear understood how it is we survive among these contradictions. Obscured by the dominance of British invasion we watch on, remembering and practicing culture in new ways. She writes in ‘Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum’ (from Dreaming in Urban Areas, UQP, 1996):
There are maybe two red river gums
a scarred tree which overlooks the
Melbourne Cricket Ground the
survivors of genocide watch
Lisa’s poem reveals two worlds coming together after invasion. Brazen architectural statements dominate the environment, but our knowledge of the land survives among the concrete. Elders of the Kulin nation talk of the ceremonies that took place long before the MCG was built. They share their knowledge of the large red river gums used for making canoes and shields with mob and the broader community. In recent decades, attempts to engage with Melbourne/Narrm’s history have emerged throughout the sporting precinct. Adjacent to the MCG, vacant land along the Yarra River was transformed into Birrarung Marr, a major park and walkway. Embedded through the development was a range of public art reflecting the cultural ways of the Kulin nation. Birrarung Wilam, by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm, creates a twisting pathway along the ground to represent the eel, a traditional food of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people who used the Yarra River to sustain their society.
To get from Birrarung Marr to the MCG, a bridge was built in 2005 and named after William Barak, a celebrated Wurundjeri activist and artist with living descendants. As you cross the bridge, you can hear the voices of Wurundjeri Elders speaking in Woiwurrung, alongside fifty-three other voices from countries around the world that have made this place home. The voices intermingle in a melodic sound installation by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth. The rhythms and words offer unity after a difficult past. But as you get closer to the MCG the atmosphere tightens. The large, grey stadium is surrounded by a litany of statues forbidding in size; the statues encircle the main entrance, upright along tourist trails named ‘Avenue of Legends’ and ‘Parade of Champions’. Famous sports stars – from Jim Stynes, Ron Barassi, Don Bradman and the regularly disgraced Shane Warne – gaze down at you. Among these champions, there are no black players commemorated in glimmering bronze.
THE AFL IS full of Aboriginal stars – Cyril ‘Junior Boy’ Rioli, Nathan Lovett-Murray, Gavin Wanganeen, Buddy Franklin, Andrew Lovett and hundreds more. But as their striking athleticism radiates, racism follows. St Kilda star Nicky Winmar lifted his shirt to the crowd in 1994, brazenly pointing to his black skin amidst the glaring racism hurled at him from the Collingwood fans. And in 2013, a thirteen-year-old girl hissed as Adam Goodes took to the ground, calling him an ape. Tensions flared as some Australians dismissed the girl’s comments as childish banter and TV commentator Eddie McGuire exposed his own racist tendencies by suggesting Adam Goodes promote the musical King Kong. Their actions generated significant media but resulted in little punishment, and Adam retired not long after, leaving fans to wonder if his career was cut short by these words and the booing that plagued his final season.
Yet every year the AFL hosts an Indigenous Round, where the surrounding parks teem with people carrying Aboriginal flags and posters of their favourite black footy stars. Dreamtime at the ’G – the annual match between Essendon and Richmond – sees the stadium erupt with vivid red and yellow lights as the Koori mob dances for the crowd, and a traditional welcome to country by Aunty Di or Aunty Caroline precedes the game.
The Indigenous Round honours Aboriginal players past, present and future. It’s an important gesture, born from difficult beginnings. Dreamtime at the ’G began after former Essendon legend Michael Long walked from his home in Melbourne all the way to Parliament House, 642 kilometres away, in 2004. What became known as ‘The Long Walk’ grew out of Long’s frustration and determination to get Aboriginal rights back on the political agenda. To honour his work, people gather at Birrarung Marr annually and walk to the ’G during the Indigenous Round. Crowds of people from all walks of life merge, with mob at the front hoisting an array of banners, vibrantly celebrating culture in this urbanised environment. Scarred trees, the river and contemporary Aboriginal art cajole and coax a coming together. The act of walking symbolically begins to reassert Indigenous sovereignty as we trace the steps of the Kulin nations.
While some may revel in the imagery of reconciliation, I also question its worth and meaning given we are the original inventors of the game: a sport that the Gunditjmara called marngrook – knowledge that is still contested, erased from public display. Unlike many white settlers of Anglo decent, Afro-Caribbean-Australian author and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke reflects on these hidden realities in her poem ‘Marngrook’, writing in Carrying the World (Hachette, 2016):
As if it’s not enough to play a stolen game
Before the colonisers who deny its name
Beneba Clarke’s words illuminate the ironies of white Australia’s attempts to address injustice while continuing to ignore important truths. Acknowledging the origins Australian rules football by calling it marngrook could offer hope, and would be representative of a range of strategies already being introduced by the sports industry. But symbolic gestures initiated by whites are common yet rarely transformative. As Wiradjuri author Jeanine Leane declares in her poem ‘Whitefellas’ (from Australian Book Review’s States of Poetry ACT):
they like building things – Whitefellas!
And when they’ve built that
bridge, they should walk back over it to
make sure it’s solid – not just tell us that it is
because we’re over promises.
Conflict haunts the MCG. Moments like the AFL Indigenous Round create optimism, and Birrarung Marr gets us walking towards change, but real justice requires a radical shift – towards a future determined by mob.