A sporting chance

By Amy McQuire, August 6, 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL:When we talk about Aboriginal people in sport, we talk about the Johnathan Thurston’s, the Greg Inglis’, the Lewis Jetta’s and the Buddy Franklin’s. But for every one of these elite athletes, there are hundreds of Aboriginal kids who see no such future. How can sport help them, asks AMY MCQUIRE*.
The Aboriginal youth of Central Australia have seen “troupes” of elite athletes bound into their communities.

Kids at an AFL clinic in the NT.
Kids at an AFL clinic in the NT.

“They turn up, jump out of their cars, and although they are nice people, they don’t have a big picture view. It’s all about them for a couple of hours in the community, and off they drive.

The next day, no one remembers who they were,” Blair McFarland from the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS) tells Tracker.

He remembers one such tour. The week after, a young man who had been an active participant in community-based sporting programs tried to take his life.

“I managed to cut him down in time. He was someone who used to engage really strongly with a sports and recreational program, but funding was erratic,” Mr McFarland told Tracker.

“… What distresses me is that there is an awful lot of money, but the vast amount never hits the ground in any sense. It goes to support various elite athletes that go around and for the same price of having these athletes pass through a community for a few hours, you could run a whole community football league for a year.”

Earlier this year, a parliamentary inquiry into the links between sport and Indigenous wellbeing released its report “Sport – More than just a game”.

It made a host of recommendations, among them that the Indigenous affairs minister consult with the Sports Minister to develop an overarching framework to fund sport programs with clear outcomes aligning with the federal government’s Close the Gap targets.

But it has received little media coverage. Although there are scores of copy written about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders dominating their respective codes – of Lance Franklin booting 13 goals in one game and Greg Inglis’ dangerous fending – little has been written about the role sport can play in raising Indigenous disadvantage on the ground.

For Dr Colin Tatz, a prolific sports historian and professor, it is to society’s detriment that we have not considered the benefits of sporting and recreational activities in raising life expectancy.

“That’s a real problem throughout our society. People regard sport as a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon activity. Sport happens in an arena, or a boxing ring or a cricket pitch and is seemingly disconnected from the rest of society,” Dr Tatz told Tracker.

“But sport is very much a part of life. It’s a social fabric that brings people together. It’s actually a playing out of some of life’s realities.”

The links between sport and physical and social wellbeing are also well-documented internationally.

But there is little literature about how sport can be used to lift the disadvantage within Indigenous communities – especially when it comes to suicide and self harm rates.

Dr Tatz has been researching the links between Aboriginal suicide and sport for more than 20 years.

He says that he has scoured missionary reports, police records, inquests, “everything under the sun”, and until the 60s “suicide was almost freakishly absent in Aboriginal communities.”

It was not a part of Aboriginal culture.

Now Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. Our youth suicide rates are world beaters.

Dr Tatz believes sport can alleviate youth suicide rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. He stresses that it is not a cure to suicide, but that it can give these kids a sense of a future in environments where it is very hard to see one.

“Sport uniquely enables people to belong, to develop a sense of loyalty and community, to have a purpose,” Dr Tatz told the inquiry.

“Above all, sporting competition is about anticipation: the next match, the next season. It is a future-orientated activity – whereas suicide resides in the immediate past and the very immediate present.”

But currently, there is a focus on elitism in sport, at the expense of building solid community infrastructure.

“A lot of the activity with Aborigines in sport is concentrated on elite sport, and when you look at evidence the sporting bodies gave to the report, you get figures like 13 percent of players in Aussie Rules are Aboriginal… and isn’t that a fantastic overrepresentation.

But that’s not the issue.

What is happening is the general community is suffering renal disease, heart disease and obesity, and all manner of illnesses… what is being done about the leisure, recreation and sporting activity for them? The answer doesn’t exist. It’s all well to say the AFL or NRL are doing this program and that program and encouraging kids. But it’s not because they are altruistic or Samaritans. It’s because they want attractive players that will help them win games,” Dr Tatz says.

Mr McFarland believes a focus on elitism does nothing for communities, and in fact can have negative consequences.

“I don’t think there has been any evaluation of whether it does any good whatsoever to have people cruising around talking to people. It’s just a sideshow. It has negative effects…

“If kids see an elite athlete and think ‘I can be an elite athlete”, at some point they realise they can’t. They don’t speak English, they could develop chronic diseases.. what I found is that elite athletes are consumable widgets in a larger commercial operation that exploits them.

“Even aspiring to be an elite athlete you have a very short timeframe… where you are developing the skills of kicking balls down a field which aren’t transferable.

“There’s no immediate benefit and I think it can be negative. They see themselves as celebrities. They want youth workers to continue their programs, and there will be a big community BBQ celebrating their visit, but that can be quite disruptive and put out local youth workers for no long effect.

“Sure, the athletes think they are doing the right thing, they are carried long by hype, but how much money is spent on that verses how much money is spent on the ground?”

A frustration of CAYLUS, illustrated in its submission to the inquiry, is that non-Indigenous corporations are soaking up the majority of funding, used towards programs that will not have a community benefit.

He uses the example of the Wilurrara Tjutaku Football League (WTFL), which is a bush AFL tournament that costs only $20,000 to run.

That funding was hard to get, he said, and yet it had enormous community benefit and was run and controlled by Aboriginal people, with no expensive wages for non-Indigenous outsiders.

“Local Aboriginal people living in isolated communities to the west of Alice Springs decided it hasn’t been good for communities to be involved in the town’s AFL,” Mr McFarland said.

“It’s fun and everyone goes in – but that’s the problem. People impoverish themselves coming vast distances, then they end up in town with no money, they sleep rough and contribute to overcrowding… there’s a whole nexus of trouble following football into town.

“They tried to stop it with the WTFL and the idea of that is people just play football against teams in other communities. Instead of on a weekend doing a 500 km round trip to Alice Springs, you do an 80 km trip to the community down the road. It’s a bush centric activity, it’s good for the local economy, and it runs on the smell of an oily rag.

“(In comparison), the NTAFL gets about $17 million to run its sort of stuff, which all happens in the big cities.”

The CAYLUS submission mentioned that at the time it was trying to get the funding for the WTFL in preparation of the “suicide season”.

It calls for government to redirect funds to Indigenous NGOs on the ground.

“The funding around sport tends to go to the big sporting corporations,” Mr McFarland says.

“That doesn’t go to the bush. We’ve tried to engage… the whole point is not to take communities to town but to put things out in communities.”

“There’s a couple of organisations we help in Papunya, and they absolutely struggle for funds, they basically don’t have any. If we can occasionally get bits of money, they take it and use it really well and wisely and get incredible results. To run a football league for two years for $20,000 can make a real difference.”

One of the recommendations of the report was that the government support increasing Indigenous sporting role models beyond the elite level.

Whilst the report mentioned that there was evidence many successful sporting programs used Indigenous sporting heroes as a hook into the program, there were still concerns raised by many submissions about the focus on elitism.

Former NRL star Preston Campbell told the committee that it was important that the focus was not on finding “the next Jonathan Thurston”.

Preston Campbell.

“It is about looking for the next leader in our community,” Mr Campbell said.

But there are concerns that the report will remain just that – a report.

Dr Tatz wants the government to commission and fund a study into suicide prevention and sport.

He says it would only need a half a million dollars to get solid data on the links between sport and life expectancy.

“I think you will find, as I found with my study of Aboriginal delinquency and the impact of sport on that in the 1990s, that it is not rocket science to work out and find factually that where there is sport, and heavy sport activity, the rates of delinquency and harm etc go down, and when the season is off the rates skyrocket,” he told the committee.

He says it is vital we start looking at sport and its potential to raise the entire wellbeing of a community, not just handpick the future stars of tomorrow.

“I have talked to hundreds of Aboriginal kids who have attempted suicide (and) are absolutely cemented in the past and the immediate present. There is no sense of anticipation; there is no sense of a future. The anticipation is the beauty of sport.”

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