Is Gary Ablett Jnr better than Gary Ablett Snr? Should we really be letting footballers into nightclubs in the first place? Is the ‘interchange debacle’ the best ever example in Australian football of fixing something that wasn’t broken? Will the Melbourne Football Club ever manage to get its act together? All of these questions have led to vibrant debate in football in 2008 (though the last one is probably more a plea for answers from a desperate fan). These questions and many others have captured column inches and front bar conversations for much of the year. But another debate has also been raging—one that, I suspect, few in the football-watching community will have noticed, but which greatly affects the way the game is understood and the influence it has on public opinion.
The Australia Football League (AFL) landed itself squarely in controversy early in 2008 by including in its official 150th anniversary publication, The Australian Game of Football, a one-page comment that argues against the suggestion that there could have been indigenous influence on the origins of the game we call Australian football. The argument about the impact that indigenous games had on the origins of Australian football, and its subsequent development, has been simmering quietly away for at least fifteen years. In 1993 Jim Poulter wrote a short essay that posed the possibility of some influence.[i] Over the years his ideas, and several more, have been taken up, investigated and written about by a number of writers, journalists and historians, with many of them coming to believe that Australian football must have some relationship to the indigenous game of Marngrook or its variants. One key debate that has come to prominence surrounds Tom Wills. Described as the ‘father of football’ since Sandercock and Turner’s Up Where Cazaly?, Wills published a letter in Bell’s Life in Victoria in 1858 that called for the development of a game of football. He subsequently contributed to development of the rules of the game, played and umpired early competitions and was involved in the founding of the game’s two oldest clubs, Melbourne and Geelong.[ii]
It is widely acknowledged that Wills spent time with the Djabwurrung people during his early childhood at his home, Lexington, near the Grampians in Victoria, knew their songs and dance and, according to his cousin, ‘could speak their language as fluently as they did themselves, much to their delight’.[iii] It has been suggested that through this experience he was influenced by indigenous games and brought that experience to the creation of Australian Rules. While still very much a contested area of history, the popular appeal and romance of this story has led to it being reported as fact in many newspaper articles and being used to publicise the game.
The discussions and rewritings of Australian history over the past decades, known as the history wars, will no doubt be familiar to Meanjin readers. The long-running tension and arguments between various historians, public figures and political forces have now raged for several decades and largely rest on the representation (and absence) of Aboriginal history in the historical record. A small but vocal group of conservative historians, politicians and columnists have vehemently opposed the reconsideration of Australian history in light of indigenous experiences, rejecting the examination of traditional historical sources and the use of alternative historical methods. The debate over Australian Rules’ origins and its link to indigenous culture bears all the same hallmarks—fiery exchanges in the national press, injudicious language, and serious conflict over the understanding and use of evidence in history.
The Australian Game of Football was commissioned by the AFL to commemorate the 150th anniversary of football and, according to CEO Andrew Demetriou, to ‘make the most outstanding football book in 150 years’.[iv] Historian Gillian Hibbins, co-author of a biography of another of Australian football’s founders, H.C.A. Harrison, contributed a chapter on the origin and codification of the rules of the game. Her chapter ‘Men of Purpose’ details the myriad early permutations of the game and its rules, emphasising the formative role played by William Hammersley and James Thompson, who, together with Wills, wrote the first set of rules. Hibbins argues that the role Tom Wills played in the development of the game has been overstated.[v] At the end of this robust opening chapter is an awkwardly placed one-page comment titled ‘A Seductive Myth’, which outlines her belief that there was no indigenous involvement in the origins of the game. It describes suggestions that there was such involvement as a ‘seductive myth’ and ‘falsifying history’ to ‘recompense for the errors of the past’. While it’s no Barry Hall king-hit, for historians those are fighting words.[vi] Hibbins directly attacks the argument that Tom Wills’ contribution to the early design of Australian football could have been influenced by indigenous football games.
The comment concentrates solely on the period in which the game was codified (1858–59). This narrow focus is reasonable enough in ‘Men of Purpose’, but in the comment ‘A Seductive Myth’ this restriction presents a conservative reading of the existing evidence and neglects the history of the past 150 years, in which indigenous players have had an undeniable and lasting impact on the game. This does a serious disservice to both indigenous people and to Australian Rules football.
Hibbins’ comment makes no reference to journalist and author Martin Flanagan (indeed, Hibbins’ piece seems largely directed at critiquing arguments raised in Jim Poulter’s 1993 piece), but debate erupted between the two writers in late March when an article in the Australian on 22 March 2008 highlighted the controversial essay by targeting Flanagan and his novel, The Call, as perpetuating the ‘myth’. In the article Hibbins says, ‘Because Martin’s a good writer and is well promoted, a lot of people read the book and have taken up the idea that Tom was influenced by Aboriginal children.’
To and fro articles between Flanagan and Hibbins occupied the pages of the Age over several weeks with phrases like ‘on the contrary’ in frequent use. Flanagan called Hibbins’ argument ‘crude’ and suffering an ‘absence of grace’ and Hibbins obstinately defended her narrow use of written evidence.[vii] An excruciatingly awkward debate on the NITV/Channel 31 Marngrook Footy Show, involving Poulter and Hibbins, followed. The public discussion was then briefly sidetracked when Hibbins, during the debate, called indigenous footballer Adam Goodes ‘racist’ for his comments in the chapter he contributed to the anniversary publication. He wrote, ‘I don’t know the truth, but I believe in the connection [between Marngrook and Australian football]. Because I know that when Aborigines play Australian Football with a clear mind and total focus, we are born to play it.’[viii] The newspapers ran headlines like ‘Goodes racist, says AFL historian’[ix] in the following days, allowing scandal to obscure the wider discussion of the responsibility the AFL has to represent its complicated and contested history as fairly as it can.
To challenge the argument that indigenous people played the game near Tom Wills’ childhood home, Hibbins’ comment in the anniversary volume outlines three written accounts of white men witnessing indigenous football games at a number of Victorian sites, but argues that no written accounts of indigenous football in the Grampians exists and therefore football was not played there. She also says that because indigenous people were suspicious of ‘tribal strangers’, cultural exchange and transfer of games between different tribes was unlikely. This is a myopic reading of the evidence. James Dawson in his Australian Aborigines: the Languages and Customs of Several Tribes in the Western District of Victoria (1881) describes the Great Meetings between neighbouring peoples, and even Wills’ father described ‘general rendezvous’ or meetings at Lexington, suggesting that cultural exchange most certainly took place between clans of the area.[x] Hibbins herself presents clear evidence of football being played everywhere from Mereibe to Westernport to Corranderk. Certainly, this is not irrefutable proof that the game was played near the Grampians, or that Tom Wills saw games being played, but neither is there proof that the game wasn’t played there.
Hibbins goes on to concede that games of football among indigenous people could have been played at the Grampians, but suggests that even if they were, Tom Wills would have been too young to remember it. This is genuinely surprising to me. Accepting that games of football were played in the area, it is certainly unreasonable to conclude that Wills, who ‘was thrown much into the companionship of Aborigines, having no boy friends of his own age’ until he was sent to school in Melbourne in 1846, would have no memory of it.[xi] More than 150 years later it seems a stretch to base an argument on expectations of what Wills could or couldn’t have remembered as a child. I know I will never forget the day my best friend fell off the monkey bars and broke her arm when I was ten years old (the same age as Wills when he lived at Lexington). And as important as that day was, even my friend would concede the sight of a girl falling down in a playground is not as impressive as the Djabwurrung corroborees ‘held at night by the light of big fires’ we know he and his cousin witnessed or the games and sporting activities that often accompanied tribal meetings.[xii]
Hibbins is convinced that Wills didn’t encounter the game because she relies on traditional historical method: the use of written accounts, newspapers, diaries and family papers. If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen. Hibbins said as much on the 7:30 Report: ‘There is no evidence for it. Tom Wills never mentions it. The people who were involved in making the rules never mention it, there are [sic] nothing in the family letters.’[xiii] This narrow use of written evidence when dealing with indigenous history is certainly not unique to Hibbins. It is replicated in the work of more prominent history warrior Keith Windschuttle, and brings to attention a significant divide in the methodology of history—a divide often exploited for maximum effect in the history wars.
You need read only one article about the ongoing saga that was Brendan Fevola’s contract negotiations this year to know that absolute truth and full details are not always what is printed in the pages of a daily paper. Should we really expect more of sources from 150 years ago than we do of modern ones?
So much of daily life goes unrecorded and a historian’s greatest challenge is to explore those spaces using what fragments remain, being always mindful not to deny a possibility on the basis of limited evidence. And where does Hibbins’ restricted methodology leave groups whose tradition is oral? As Stuart Macintyre recognises, ‘Memory has an augmented significance in a society that has no written records. It enters into Aboriginal narratives, life stories, fiction and painting that expand our awareness of a living tradition. Historians sensitive to the qualities of such oral history use it to extend the boundaries of conventional historical knowledge.’[xiv] Grant Hansen, host of Marngrook Footy Show, identifies this flaw in Hibbins’ contribution, saying that ‘She failed to actually interview any indigenous people about the game … quite ironic if she’s writing an article about Marngrook.’ In failing to acknowledge or consider the use of oral or other sources of history as evidence, Hibbins denied a voice to indigenous history and drew sweeping conclusions with little regard for the oral cultural tradition of indigenous people or the history those traditions might reveal.
Her only argument not concerning Tom Wills addresses Poulter’s suggestion that the high mark of the game today bears a ‘striking resemblance’ to the Aboriginal game and the Aboriginal word for catch, ‘mark’ or ‘mumarki’.[xv] Dawson’s 1881 book provides one of the most vivid descriptions of early marking: ‘the ball is kicked high in the air, not thrown up by hand as white boys do, nor kicked along the ground, there is general excitement who shall catch it, the tall fellow stands the best chance, when the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it, it is sent with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by hand’.[xvi] To me, that sounds a lot like what happens at the MCG most weekends. Hibbins rightly argues that the mark was not an original feature of the game, and was introduced later in the 1870s, but she goes on to say that there is no evidence that connects this later development with indigenous games. This is remarkable. Even historian Geoffrey Blainey, who also considers indigenous influence on the game to be ‘myth’, concedes that indigenous games could have influenced early players of Australian football. He suggests that the distinctive high mark of Marngrook players ‘seems to be primarily an extension of the “mark” of English football, but it is conceivable that several of the early exponents of what became a distinctively Australian form of marking had seen Aboriginals at play in rural areas, gained confidence from watching them and even imitated their style of leaping’.[xvii]
Hibbins’ essay challenges the possibility of any indigenous influence on the early history of the game with evidence from just one period of time—codification. She fails to acknowledge that the game has been influenced and changed every moment since. As Blainey argues, ‘In trying to understand the origins of the present game of Australian football, we forget that it was moulded by many people and influences, decade after decade.’ Barely an off-season or preseason goes by without a rule experimentation, reinterpretation or change. Coaches outsmart each other with paddocks and floods (and my recent favourite ‘corralling’) every week. Some of the game’s greatest players have changed the game forever, just by stepping out onto the field. To deny the possibility of indigenous influence on the early development of the game is to deny one of the fundamental features of our game—its mercurial nature (a note to AFL commentators—I mean mercurial in the true sense of the word).
The greatest flaw in Hibbins’ argument is not one of evidence or interpretation but one of focus. The essay is occupied almost solely with the possibility of a connection between Wills and indigenous football games. It draws attention only to indigenous influence on the very first codification of rules and early organised games and, in doing so, neglects the 150 years since, when indigenous people and Marngrook have undoubtedly had a powerful influence on the way the game is played.
The statistics on indigenous involvement in Australian football are testament to the influence indigenous players have had on the game and the way it is played. Indigenous players represent 10 per cent of all AFL players today, the highest number ever to play the game at AFL level. Individually, these players bring their skills and their experiences to the game anew, and change it each week as coaches seek to match up or negate their influence on a game. As a collective, indigenous players have also had one of the most important influences on the rules of the game since its creation. The AFL’s racial and religious vilification rules have changed attitudes to race not just in football, but also in other sports that followed suit—and in wider society. These rules, which protect players from abuse, would not exist were it not for the persistence of a group of indigenous players.[xviii] This informal group of indigenous players would not let the abuse continue, and when the AFL brought in inadequate rules, fought to have them changed and then enforced. The AFL now takes enormous pride in its racial and religious vilification rules and it is held up as an exemplar for its actions. The game of football as it exists today owes a great deal to indigenous players and their influence.
By publishing Hibbins’ essay in its official 150th anniversary publication without acknowledging the contested nature of Hibbins’ interpretation of this history, providing a counter argument or even presenting a balanced contribution that gave equal credence to both arguments, the AFL made a serious error of judgement. It made a mockery of the AFL’s own attempts to embrace and strengthen connections between Marngrook and Australian Rules football, including their support of the AFL indigenous round and the annual Dreamtime match. The essay and the subsequent controversy marred this year’s 150th celebrations and prevent the book from being the ‘outstanding football book’ and valuable historical record that the AFL hoped it would be.
Hibbins’ myopic use of evidence in her comment and the AFL’s willingness to publish such a piece have tarnished the game and its history. It is likely that we will never really understand the depth of the connection between the origins of Australian football and Marngrook. The debate over Tom Wills and the influence of the Djabwurrung is not likely to end any time soon. Two works published this year, Greg De Moore’s biography Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall and the compelling and persuasive chapter ‘Tom Wills—Crossing the Boundaries of Anglo-Australia’ in Barry Judd’s On the Boundary Line, are likely to keep the discussion going. The task of re-examining Australia’s history to recognise the influence of indigenous people is an immensely valuable one. But to me, whether or not historians think that indigenous involvement with and contribution to the game began with a young Tom Wills witnessing centuries-old indigenous sport seems irrelevant when confronted with the powerful and lasting influence indigenous people have had on the game every day since.
Image credit: DustyNail
[i] Jim Poulter, ‘Marn-Grook—Original Australian Rules’, in Peter Burke and Leo Grogman (eds), This Game of Ours: Supporters’ Tales of the People’s Game, EATWAR-FLEMSD, Melbourne, 1993, p. 67.
[ii] Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, Up Where Cazaly?: The Great Australian Game, Granada, Sydney, 1981, pp. 19–29.
[iii] Greg De Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne, 2008, p. 15.
[iv] Andrew Demetriou, ‘A Game for Us All’, in The Australian Game of Football since 1858, GSP Books, Melbourne, 2008, p. 26.
[v] Gillian Hibbins, ‘Men of Purpose’, in The Australian Game of Football, pp. 31–44.
[vi] Hibbins, ‘A Seductive Myth’, in The Australian Game of Football, p. 45.
[vii] Age, 10, 16, 23 May 2008.
[viii] Adam Goodes, ‘A Matter of Choice’, in The Australian Game of Football, p. 185.
[ix] Herald Sun, 15 May 2008.
[x] Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne 2008, p. 46.
[xi] De Moore, Tom Wills, p. 15.
[xii] Judd, On the Boundary Line, p. 46.
[xiii] Mike Sexton, ‘Debate over AFL continues’, 7:30 Report, 22 May 2008. Transcript available from: <http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2007/s2253142.htm>.
[xiv] Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 46.
[xv] Poulter, ‘Marn-Grook’, p. 67.
[xvi] James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia (1881), quoted in Judd, On the Boundary Line, p. 49.
[xvii] Geoffrey Blainey, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2003, p. 203.
[xviii] Greg Gardiner, Football and Racism: The AFL’s Racial and Religions Vilification Rule, Discussion Paper, Monash University Koori Research Centre, Melbourne, 1997.