There are enough aspects of the upcoming AFLX competition to turn even the most hardened footy fans off the concept. Hybrid rules, playing on a soccer-sized pitch, and less players on the park at any one time are sure-fire ways to upset footy traditionalists.
Less contact, less tackling and, let’s be honest, less competition make the watered down version of the game less than palatable to those who just want footy back.
The fact there’s no actual loyalty to any team is another problem that jumped out at me immediately, and was highlighted recently on Twitter by AFL Legend, Leigh Matthews.
He floated the idea of giving supporters teams to actually cheer for, and to invoke a genuinely passionate response – something along the lines of an AFLX: State of Origin tournament. It wasn’t the worst idea. It would give supporters (at least from the big three southern states… nobody gets behind the ‘Allies’ concept) something to connect with instead of a random assortment of players thrown together.
In my opinion, State of Origin is dead in the water. I’m glad the AFL didn’t try to resurrect it. It meant something to Matthews’ vintage, but to modern fans, the lustre of those games wore off a long time ago.
With AFLX, the AFL has gone down a very different path, which on the surface appears fine. There’s some fancy logos, jumper designs and stars of the game lead each team. It’s obviously marketed to kids, so I am guessing the readership of The Mongrel Punt is outside their target demographic, but looking at the way it was constructed as a competition, really only three of the teams were cobbled together randomly. One team was put together with purpose – it is comprised entirely of players with an indigenous background.
When Eddie Betts was named one of the AFLX team captains, and it was revealed that his team was named “Deadly” I started to wonder where it was going. You see, having worked in the community sector for a long time now, I see the connection young indigenous people have to that name - ‘Deadly’. There’s a good amount of ownership over the word within the indigenous community, particularly with the younger ones. They identify with it.
The name itself, in isolation, speaks volumes, but when the draft rolled around and Eddie, with Shaun Burgoyne already named as his vice captain, selected only those with indigenous heritage, it became something a little more than just a name.
In an age where we’re all about being inclusive, and diversity is something we strive for as a society, I started to wonder whether having an all-indigenous team was a step forward, or a step backward?
It didn’t take long for me to realise just how great a step forward this could be.
The immediate positives jump out at you. Celebrating the champions of the game who have an indigenous background should be something that happens regularly. Indigenous players are incredibly well-represented in the AFL – disproportionately so when compared to the actual percentage of the population that are aware of their indigenous heritage. Their skill, speed and brilliance is evident in so many innovators, superstars and legends of the game. Polly Farmer, Barry Cable, the Krakouer Brothers and Adam Goodes are undoubted champions of the sport. Their legacies are set in stone, but they never got the chance to represent their people WITH their people.
The AFL celebrates indigenous round and honours the traditional owners of Australia in one round every year. Players wear jumpers adorned with aboriginal artwork to celebrate the significant contributions indigenous people have made to the fabric of the game. We have the wonderful spectacle that is the Dreamtime game at the MCG between Richmond and Essendon, clubs whose colours combine to create the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Whilst I like everything about the indigenous round, having an all-indigenous team, wearing the colours of the aboriginal flag, takes it to another level.
I suppose the question has to be asked - is a team assembled for a one-off game in February enough for the indigenous players? And does it become somewhat of a token gesture when you have this side, ostensibly an indigenous all-star team, compete in a competition that simply does not matter?
On the flip side, does their inclusion make AFLX matter? To some, maybe it does.
There has always been a special bond between indigenous players. You can see it when the players actively seek each other out on opposing teams after big games. It’s a true brotherhood, but should a brotherhood so meaningful deserve a grander stage?
Should it be the absolute highlight of the pre-season, and something for players to strive to be part of?
Is having this team as part of this AFLX pre-season sideshow actually watering down what could be – an indigenous all-star team as the marquee, pre-season spectacular? If the league really wants to support this weird kind of ‘inclusive division’ that Eddie’s Team Deadly is offering, give it the platform it deserves. Give it centre-stage, and promote the hell out of it.
The Indigenous All-Stars versus the AFL All-Stars.
An indigenous representative team isn't exactly new, but these teams have a very short shelf life. They're here for one game, then they're gone. That's something we should change.
Willie Rioli made his AFL debut last season, and at age 23 has many years left in the game. Imagine he plays another seven seasons after this, and retires having been one of the elite players of the game. How would an accolade like “8x Indigenous All-Star” sit with him as he moves into retirement? I think it would be a badge of pride; even more so if he were part of a winning team on several occasions in an annual AFL All-Star showdown. The All-AFL team against the All-Indigenous team annually, with players voted in by supporters.
Scott Pendlebury has long advocated for some form of All-Star game. A fan of the NBA (and of course… having a “basketball background”) you know that Pendles would’ve loved to have something like “9x AFL All Star” on his footy CV.
This is the opportunity to make it happen. Amazingly, this could be the legacy AFLX leaves behind.
There will be those who bemoan the further ‘Americanisation’ of our sport, with the addition of an All-Star format. My guess is that most of these people haven’t grown up with the accessibility of US sports, be it on Foxtel, or streaming via NBA League Pass or NFL Season Ticket. Kids where I work rattle off NBA statistics with uncanny accuracy – they watch so much US sport. They can watch a dozen games per week and actually care who leads the race for All-Star votes. Not only do they care – they vote. They don’t know what it’s like to have a world where world-sports are not readily available whenever and wherever they want to watch. The AFL isn’t just competing with the A-League, or the NBL for eyes on screens – they’re competing with the NBA, NFL, NHL and Premier League.
An All-Star format provides a platform that would capture the attention of the kids. That is what the AFL craves; the dedication of the next generation. The All-Star format is interactive. It can put the power in the hands of the voters, and it gives young fans the opportunity to nominate the best of the best to play in one game.
AFLX is a fluff tournament. Really, it’s just players getting out there and having a kick as a bit of pre-season fun. It’s different, and may be a little too far removed from the game we love for us to truly embrace it. Eddie Betts’ initiative to bring together the brotherhood of indigenous players to form a united team is the one positive that can come out of it.
Sure, if you look at it through the lens of “progressiveness” or “inclusion” you could pick holes in it as being divisive. It’s an old argument as to what is celebrating a certain culture and what is favouring it in what is supposed to be a multicultural melting pot society.
As a sense of pride in representing your people, in the form of pulling on the Team Deadly jumper in the annual AFL All-Star game could be a milestone moment for many – a reward for effort, and recognition not just of their fantastic play, but of the place they hold in the AFL community. It is a privilege that could be replicated by their opponents, pulling on an All-Star jumper of their own.
If you’re thinking that’s too divisive, well… it probably is! But if you’re paying attention, it’s happening anyway this season in AFLX – why not have it happen in a format that will actually matter.
Why not make it matter?
Personally, I feel no connection with Nat Fyfe’s Flyers, Patrick Dangerfield’s Bolts or Jack Riewoldt’s Rampage, but I firmly believe indigenous people may feel a connection, even for just one day, with Betts’ Team Deadly.
And maybe that was the AFL’s intention.
The AFL has their fingers in many pies. Women’s Round, Multicultural Round, Anzac Round, and Indigenous Round have all graced the AFL calendar, but I ask you - is having an all-indigenous team for one day, in a competition that does not matter, enough?
Is it watering down what this team could be, and what it could represent? Or is this just step one to get it where it needs to be?
Going forward, Team Deadly could be the perfect way to implement a pre-season game – no, a pre-season spectacle actually worth watching. The Indigenous All-Stars versus the AFL All-Stars, as voted by the supporters.
I’d buy a ticket, or at least watch on TV. I’d even cast a vote or ten for the players I wanted to see out there.
An all-indigenous team right now may be a one-off, but it could be so much more. If Nat Fyfe’s Flyers win the tournament, I doubt anyone will care.
But if Betts’ Team Deadly is pictured all together holding the trophy… that could be the start of something bigger. Could it begin the push for an Indigenous All-Star team every year?
As it stands, most people don’t care about AFLX. However, I’m trying to see the oak tree in the acorn. The Bolts, the Flyers, the Rampage… they don’t really matter. They don’t mean anything.
There is one team in the tournament that actually matters. There is one team that has some meaning, and some substance. We may be about to witness something revolutionary.
Go Team Deadly.
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