What’s behind the AFL’s sudden insistence that the game has Indigenous beginnings?

Paul Daley
Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Debate over whether Australian football has its beginnings in Indigenous Marn Grook, a ball game with an ancient continental past, is intensifying after the AFL’s sudden insistence that the Aboriginal pastime has apparently influenced the earliest official Aussie Rules code.

Welcome to the resurgence of tensions on another front of Australia’s contested past whereby colonial Australian documentation, and its omissions, is accepted by many non-Indigenous authorities to be ascendant over Aboriginal oral transfer of cultural practice.

On 7 June the AFL apologised to former Sydney Swans great Adam Goodes, who was shamefully booed into retirement in 2015. Racism, especially of the anti-Indigenous variety, has long festered in the AFL and the apology coincided with The Final Quarter, a new documentary exploring Goodes’s exit from AFL and the league’s inaction – and errant failure to stop – the racist booing.

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The apology – notwithstanding the continuing racism in the AFL – was long overdue. That it made a virtue of apparently linking Marn Grook to the code has surprised many, because the AFL has in recent years steadfastly adhered to the documentary research of (mostly non-Indigenous) historians of the game.

The AFL asserted: “The history of the game says that Australian Rules has officially been played for 161 years. Yet, for many years before, Aboriginal history tells us that traditional forms of football were played by Australia’s first peoples all over Australia, most notably in the form of Marngrook in the western districts of Victoria. It is Australia’s only Indigenous football game – a game born from the ancient traditions of our country. It is a game that is proudly Australian.”

There is nothing remotely controversial in this statement for Indigenous AFL players, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including their legions of Aussie Rules supporters. They’ll tell you that they know that their fast-moving, kicking and jumping contest, often involving 100 or more players, men and women, existed for countless millennia before European invasion and dispossession, and that it can only have influenced from the very beginning the play of the original game codified by Tom Wills in Melbourne in 1858.

Documentary omission – the material absence of a document - does not, of course, nullify Indigenous experience

But many AFL historians and autodidact purists (comparable, perhaps, only to train- or plane-spotters or cricket-stat nerds when it comes to pedantry) insist the absence of documentary evidence of a Marn Grook influence on the football game associated with Wills means there is probably no link.

The ABC’s national sport editor, David Mark, wrote an excellent piece about the cultural divide over the origins of Australian football. It goes to the divergent white and black histories that polarise argument.

There is some documentary suggestion that Wills, as a boy, was probably exposed to Marn Grook in Victoria’s western districts in the 1830s and 40s, where he was the only white child. But there is nothing in his personal or family archive to suggest that the game he was largely responsible for codifying (based, he said, on a variation of rugby, which he played when he was educated from 14 at England’s Rugby Sschool) was consciously influenced by Marn Grook or that he’d seen or played the Indigenous game as a kid.

Over the decades the AFL has had variously nuanced positions on the purported influence – and links – between Marn Grook (“ball” or “game”, a high-kicking Indigenous contest that was played with a possum skin ball in central and southern Victoria for ceremony and leisure) and Aussie Rules.

While Indigenous Australia has a rich oral record of Marn Grook (other similar ball games were played in the north and continental centre), debate over the influence of – and links between – the Indigenous and official code in recent decades has hinged heavily on the colonial record and the extensive Wills archive.

For Australian football’s 150th anniversary in 2008, the AFL commissioned a book, The Australian Game of Football Since 1858. It included a remarkably strident chapter by AFL historian Gillian Hibbins. She labelled any claimed link between Marn Grook and Australian football a “seductive myth”.

“Understandably the appealing idea that Australian football is a truly Australian native game recognising the Indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted in some places,” she wrote.

Documentary omission – the material absence of a document – does not, of course, nullify Indigenous experience, its generational transposition through oral history, art and song – or its value to modern history.

The contestation of the Australian historiographical space especially in relation to dispossession, white land grabs and widespread massacres, underscores tensions between the documentary (which has downplayed injustice, violence and cultural appropriation) and the veracity of Indigenous means of recording the past. Many crimes against Aboriginal people, much appropriation of their culture and property, was not documented – yet we know by other means what happened.

Like the land, so much Indigenous and shared black/white history has been colonised. White fellas didn’t always admit in writing (though plenty did!) to killing the Indigenes whose families had lived forever on the land they stole. Would Wills have volunteered any Indigenous influence on the game he pioneered for the Melbourne Cricket Club, whose first match was played in Melbourne between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar?

In 1998 the AFL dedicated a monument to Wills at Moyston, close to where he lived as a child. It reads, “While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area he developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.”

Yet as recently as 2017, presented with new documentary evidence by historian Jenny Hocking that Marn Grook was played where Wills was raised (this was previously said by Hibbins and others to be most unlikely) the AFL said, “The debate is really one between historians as to what Wills was exposed to.”

In 2016 Monash University’s Hocking and Nell Reidy wrote a piece for Meanjin titled Marngrook, Tom Wills and the Continuing Denial of Indigenous History. It is a detailed consideration of the history war around Australian football that offers proof Marn Grook was played around Wills’s childhood home before white settlement and after, and could, therefore, have influenced him.

Hocking and Reidy wrote that Hibbins’s “emphatic rejection of ‘the appealing idea’ left no space even for the possibility of a link between marngrook and Australian football, much less a causal relationship between them”.

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“In this, the historiographic response is as interesting as the history itself. Such singularity reflects a conceptual position in which the settler colonial experience is the only perspective from which history is, and can be, told.”

In other words, it dismisses the possibility of a shared history, erring, instead, on the default position.

Meanwhile, the AFL might need to shed some light on why only now it has apparently, suddenly, changed its position to embrace Marn Grook’s possible link to the game’s beginnings.

Its timing tends to look opportunistic – a fig leaf for its further exposure, in light of The Final Quarter, at having failed to act ethically and responsibly while Goodes was being racially abused week in, week out.

Indigenous Australians know the origins and influence of their games. Just as they can spot a fig leaf a mile off.

• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist