An Australian Rules football competition in Central Australia’s bush communities may hold the key to improved health and wellbeing outcomes among Aboriginal people, a Charles Darwin University researcher says.
Northern Institute Indigenous Social Researcher Professor Barry Judd put forward the idea to guests of philanthropist Susan Alberti at the Australian Club in Melbourne this month on the eve of the 2018 AFL season.
“I spoke about the wellbeing benefits of playing football in Indigenous communities such as Papunya, and of the need for an on-country football league with support from the AFL industry to operate out there in a way that it hasn’t to date,” Professor Judd said.
“I explained that these communities are relatively safe places for young men to play football. They are places where they know how to behave socially according to traditional law, and where elders are able to engage with younger men and put them on a right path in life through football.”
Professor Judd, a descendant of the Pitjantjatjara people and a leading scholar on Aboriginal participation in Australian sport, has spent several years observing the social impact of Australian Rules on Indigenous Australia and how participation in organised sport affects identity and everyday life in remote communities.
He said a number of social issues could be linked to football’s existing structure in Central Australia, which funnels many games into Alice Springs.
“Young men come to Alice Springs to play or watch football and don’t go home,” he said.
“This can lead to overcrowding in town camps, people running out of money for food, and law and order issues that contribute to the high number of Indigenous men who end up in jail.
“We could minimise risk by reducing the number of trips these young fellas make to Alice to play football in a way that is similar to how the game is structured in Top End communities and Arnhem Land.”
Professor Judd speculated that the “bush league” might comprise six or eight teams from communities west and northwest of Alice Springs, which competed in a home and away format, followed by a short finals series.
“We have the expertise to study and analyse such a football competition and to track changes in wellbeing, but what’s needed is a supporter who’s prepared to invest in on-country football over a number of years,” he said.
“Football has a positive impact in the lives of young Aboriginal men by keeping them fit and on the right path, but it could do so much more if we took the time to restructure football in Central Australia.”
Professor Judd’s presentation in Melbourne was supported by the Bridging the Gap Foundation, which raises funds for research at Charles Darwin University and the Menzies School of Health Research.