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Newslines Radio: Tough transitions - Supporting Indigenous footballers


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Nathan Ramsay

Xavier Clarke, AFL Players Association, VIC
Dwayne Bosen, AFL Cape York, QLD
Phil Narkle, West Coast Eagles, WA
Paul Vandenbergh, Port Adelaide Football Club, SA
Rhys Wesser, South Sydney Rabbitohs, NSW
Ty Williams, Northern Pride RLFC, QLD

30 Jul 2012

PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

CLARKE: I got drafted as an 18 year old, straight out of Darwin. So I finished school and moved straight to Melbourne to play at the Saints. I loved my fishing and going hunting, couldn’t really do any of that in Melbourne which was tough for me.

PRESENTER: That’s Xavier Clarke, the former St Kilda and Brisbane Lions player who now works at the AFL Players Association.

More from Xavier later.

Indigenous Australians punch above their weight when it comes to the footy codes. Although we make up around two per cent of the national population, Indigenous players represent over 10 per cent of both AFL and NRL team lists.

Every year, Indigenous athletes come from all over the country to play Aussie rules and rugby league in the big cities. The transitions can be tough. Leaving behind family, community and land is not an easy thing to do.

This week we’ll look at this transition and what codes and clubs are doing to support new Indigenous recruits.

Dwayne Bosen of AFL Cape York promotes the sport in some of the most remote communities in Australia. A number of big names have come from the region, including Peter Yagmoor who now plays for Collingwood and Courtenay Dempsey who is with Essendon.

BOSEN: There are a number of players that move from the Cape to the city to play AFL. In the last four to five years we had about 60 to 70 kids come through our scholarship program, and that gives them the opportunity to play footy in big cities.

Kids from the communities that don’t see traffic lights, large buildings, vehicles, really do get a shock when they go down to the big lights.

It is a big success for young players to make that level, but it’s just that lack of support that they get when they’re in that city that makes them hide and head back home.

PRESENTER: It’s a problem that’s made headlines in recent years, with a number of Indigenous footballers leaving clubs because of homesickness.

Here’s Xavier Clarke again.

CLARKE: For our boys the sense of being home and the sense of culture and belonging is a lot stronger.

The real remote boys tend to struggle a little bit more because the reality is you come from a small community where there’s about 250 people, it’s comfortable, it’s what you know, your family is there, your culture, and then you move to a place like Melbourne where the weather’s different, a couple of million people.

You’re adjusting to a professional lifestyle in terms of training every day to a strict schedule, you get told what to eat, when to eat, what weight you need to be, how to play your game.

Some players do it really well, which is absolutely fantastic, but a lot of other boys need a little more guidance, in terms of how can they adapt a little bit better to the lifestyles of AFL football.

PRESENTER: Xavier says that everything from cold winters to the language barrier contributes to a sense of culture shock among some of the AFL’s new Indigenous talent.

CLARKE: Recently we’ve seen guys like Amos Frank from APY Lands, Liam Jurrah also, come down and that language barrier is something that’s probably the first thing that’s a bit of a challenge.

Guys like Amos Frank, English sometimes could be up to his third language. So when you’re sitting in a meeting with 40 of the other Hawthorn players and your coach is talking about your game style and game structure, someone like an Amos taking all that in and understanding it can be difficult.

PRESENTER: To help Indigenous players deal with the transition and other cross-cultural issues, AFL clubs have begun to employ Indigenous Liaison Officers.

Phil Narkle, who was one of the earliest Aboriginal players to make a name for himself in the AFL, holds the post at West Coast Eagles.

NARKLE: I’ve experienced this as well, I used to play at St Kilda Football Club and I went from Perth to Melbourne, and because the club didn’t have anyone there to support me, or they didn’t really know or understand about Indigenous culture at the time, I found it hard to connect to that land because I’m from a different area.

To come to a city where you don’t know people, you don’t know the transport, you don’t know where to go. I talk to a lot of our Indigenous players and it’s about family and that’s the number one thing, is missing family. It’s not the football and it’s not the money or the glamour, it’s actually the family, and connection to their land is important too.

PRESENTER: To help address this, new players to the club often move in with a local host family.

NARKLE: We’ve got in place for young people coming from the remote areas into the city, we try and get them host parents to live with. They have a choice whether they live with non-Indigenous host parents or Indigenous host parents, so we actually talk with the Indigenous player plus the parents and they have that option where to live.

PRESENTER: Paul Vandenbergh, a Wirangu man from South Australia, has a similar role at the Port Adelaide Football Club.

He provides support to the club’s three Indigenous players, especially two new recruits, Brendon Ah Chee and Chad Wingard.

VANDENBERGH: I think having myself here, being Indigenous myself, having that support and understanding of culture and the importance of family and all that sort of stuff has really helped to be able to go between worlds, me being able to relay it back to the club, but also myself talking to the club about the needs that the players have.

It does help, it certainly does. The boys are always up at my desk and they’re always hanging around and they’re always talking. I take them out to dinner as well which is a really good opportunity just to talk to see how they’re going.

PRESENTER: Vandenbergh says that one of the best ways to help with homesickness is to keep the player’s family involved throughout their career.

VANDENBERGH: We make pretty conscious efforts to spend as much time with their family as well back in their own home country. Part of that is in the interview process as well, making sure that they’re comfortable that their sons are coming all the way here to Adelaide to play for Port Adelaide Football Club.

Another thing we do is actually invite all the family, all the parents, to Port Adelaide before the season starts and talk about the structure, take them on a tour of the facilities, introduce them to their host families who their sons are going to be staying with. So we’re trying to really build that part of the program up, so that the parents are really comfortable.

PRESENTER: You’re listening to Newslines Radio. Today, we’re talking about the pressures that Indigenous footballers face when they move from rural and remote Australia into the cities.

This area is also a big focus in the world of rugby league, from a grass roots level right up to the National Rugby League, or NRL.

Ty Williams is a former North Queensland Cowboys player who now captains the Northern Pride in Cairns.

The Pride competes in the Queensland Cup, and is a springboard to the NRL for Indigenous players in Far North Queensland.

WILLIAMS: With our work we go into the remote communities, we see a kid that’s fairly good at what he does, could be a 20 year old that’s half-decent at football and it’s just raw talent.

The whole thing is you’re taken out of your comfort zone, from when you’re a baby you’re always around your family, whether it’s your Mum and Dad, your brother and sister, or whoever it is, and if you don’t have those support systems down here, it’s a tough gig to be doing by yourself.

We generally try and bring them down for a trial with us, with the Northern Pride, whether it be under 16s or under 18s and then if they go well there, they might spend a year or two with us and hopefully they get picked up from that into a better system, a bit more exposure for them and hopefully they go into the NRL and bigger and better things.

PRESENTER: Ty has seen first-hand how rugby league can change the lives of Indigenous Australians in rural and remote communities.

WILLIAMS: We’re just trying to give those guys pathways, trying to expose them to the big wide world out there, and if you’re willing to make a bit of sacrifice and commitment, for a certain amount of time, life can really open up, and a lot more doors can open up.

There’s so many kids that have got raw talent that are in the remote communities. In saying that, when they do come in, I think the NRL has to look after these guys, because with a blink of an eye they want to go back home.

PRESENTER: Former Penrith Panthers fullback Rhys Wesser now works with Indigenous players at the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Rhys left his Rockhampton home at 17 to play rugby league with the Panthers.

WESSER: It was quite scary coming straight out of school, I just remember jumping on a plane. I could probably count on one hand how many times I’d jumped on a plane when I was 17.

Moving all my stuff down to Sydney, down to Penrith, I wasn’t too sure what I was going to rock up to, all I knew and I wanted to do was to play football and to try and live out a dream.

PRESENTER: Rhys told Newslines that he encounters a number of Indigenous players at Souths who struggle with the transition from community to club.

But things are made a little easier as the Rabbitohs has such a strong Indigenous tradition.

WESSER: With Souths, the community is the Redfern community, there are a lot of Indigenous organisations that are run around here and mainly a lot of Indigenous people live here.

The players that have come and gone, a lot have been Indigenous, there’s a lot of Indigenous players playing with us at the moment, so we’re big on Indigenous welfare and understanding the needs of Indigenous people.

PRESENTER: Rhys says clubs and all the football codes need to put more of a focus on supporting new Indigenous recruits, or risk losing them.

WESSER: It’s very important, it’s very important for all codes of football, whether it’s AFL or NRL or rugby union.

It’s important because when we talk about Closing the Gap with Indigenous and non-Indigenous, we need those Indigenous role models to lead the way, and if we don’t give them that support, then we don’t have those role models for the kids to look up to and to dream big and think “I can do that one day too”.

We need to support those role models to make sure they can become as big as they can be.

PRESENTER: That was Rhys Wesser from the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The Australian Government’s recently announced the Jim Stynes Achievement Scholarships, awarded each year to young disadvantaged sportsmen and women to fulfil their sporting, education and community goals.

Let’s hope this scholarship, combined with the hard work of the different footy codes, will lead to more and more Indigenous players coming up through the ranks and continue our proud tradition in the AFL and NRL.

Visit our website to find out more.

You can also read our Indigenous Newslines magazine there, listen to past radio programs and friend Newslines on Facebook.

I’m Nathan Ramsay, thanks for listening to Newslines Radio. Stay deadly.

Find out more

The Australian Government funds a number of initiatives that support Indigenous players and communities around Australia.

These include AFL Cape York’s Kids Living Safer Lives program and the AFL Remote Regional Development Program, run by AFL NT.

Watch a video on the success of the AFL Remote Regional Development Program in Wadeye.

The AFL Players Association’s Indigenous Player Advisory Board was formed in 2011 to provide a voice for Indigenous players in the AFL.


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