Footy ’empowering us’, as Rioli names his top five

This weekend’s footy round celebrates the contributions of Indigenous people in our wonderful game, and there is no better time to reflect on the great work the AFL does when it comes to empowering Indigenous people and their communities.

The AFL has been such a positive vehicle for the advancement and success of Indigenous peoples right around the country, and has made an enormous impact by giving the very best of our footballing talent the opportunity to showcase their exquisite talent on a national stage.

We are just 2% of the population yet the Indigenous participation rate in the AFL has been around 11% since the early 2000’s. This is an impressive statistic as it proves that Indigenous players are comfortable and confident to perform and excel in this high pressure environment.

I was lucky enough to have been drafted to Essendon when the great Kevin Sheedy was at the helm. He was the front runner in bringing change to a football club – and indeed the code itself – that prided itself in diversity and acceptance.

Sheedy would often brag about the many different communities across the entire nation from which he had recruited his talent. He would often take the Bombers to many places throughout remote Australia and educate his players and staff about the realities of life in remote communities.

The AFL has also been front and centre in the fight to stamp out the scourge of racism.

Racism in sport has always been a huge topic but I truly believe that no organisation plays its part better than the AFL in delivering the message that racism has no place in our game. The many stories that have been shared by past Indigenous champions about their experiences in the 70’s and 80’s proves just how far the game, and those who run it and play it, have come.

Back then, it was common practice for opposition players to succumb to racist taunts to get into the head of champion Indigenous players. In today’s game it’s almost unheard of that opposition players would stoop to those tactics to distract a player. The AFL must be commended on their player education programs and zero tolerance to such acts.

In my nine seasons with the Bombers between 1998 and 2006, I never experienced any racial abuse, mainly because of the brave stance taken by past players such as Michael Long and Nicky Winmar.

But I will tell you this; on an end-of-season football trip in 2002, a group of the players was sitting around having a few beers and the topic of getting in the head of opposition players came up. A close team mate of mine admitted that he would resort to racist taunts to get the upper hand on his opponent.

Our captain James Hird jumped straight out of his seat and let him know in no uncertain terms that any racism was completely off limits and totally unacceptable. My mate broke down, and explained to me that he was not a racist but it was purely about getting an edge. The man I speak about is one of my favourite people – I know he is in no way a racist – but he learnt very quickly that racist taunts would in no way be tolerated.

It was a positive moment that made me realise that many non-Indigenous people do stand up against racism.

Here’s one to get the debates going. There has been some amazing talent emerge from many different parts of the country, but here’s my Top Five Indigenous players over the last 20 years.

  1. Andrew McLeod
  2. Adam Goodes
  3. Buddy Franklin
  4. Cyril Rioli
  5. Shaun Burgoyne

And finally, the AFL’s most senior Indigenous position, vacated by Jason Misfud, may well be taken up by Nova Peris, if the rumours are right. Nova is a great advocate for Indigenous advancement and it would be a huge asset to have such a high-profile Indigenous woman in this position.

Enjoy the weekend’s footy!

Dean Rioli



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