Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Transitioning into the AFL:
Indigenous Football Players’ Perspectives

Emma E. Campbell
Dubai Women’s College


Christopher C. Sonn
Victoria University
Melbourne, Australia






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Sport plays an important part in Indigenous culture, politics is an important part, sport’s important, and it brings the community together. On some communities it is a matter of life and death. It’s what our programs bring, being part, participating in football, community being involved, raising awareness on alcohol and drugs, health issues, very important part in how we can make an impact on Australia. Football is such a powerful tool, it’s one thing Indigenous people love, that’s football, not saying it’s going to change our world, but geez we’ve got something there that can attract the kids, families and can change an ecosystem, make an impact on all different levels. We’ve got players, Indigenous players that are powerful tools; they are seen as heroes, role models. They can have an impact through a leather ball. (Michael Long, AFL Ambassador, cited in Roberts, 2005).

       The quotation above highlights the important and powerful role of sport in Indigenous communities in Australia. Participation in sports can be a way of integrating Indigenous people to the larger society and providing opportunities for social participation and social identity construction, as well as opportunities for engaging in meaningful and rewarding roles. Since the mid 90’s, there has been a steady increase in the number of Indigenous Australian footballers joining the Australian Football League (AFL). In 1990, the number of Indigenous footballers was 16 and, twenty years later, in 2009, the number has risen to 82 (AFLPA, 2009). The numbers exceeded 50 for the first time in 2006 and, in 2009, Indigenous footballers make up more than 14% of the AFL lists. In comparison, Indigenous Australians make up 2.2% of the Australian population (ABS, 2006). There are various views about the popularity of Australian Rules football within Indigenous communities, in particular with young Indigenous men. Some of these views include that the AFL is a prospect for social mobility and opportunity, suggesting limited options in other workforce areas. The popularity of AFL may be due to the increasing visibility of Indigenous men experiencing successful AFL careers. The heightened status of AFL may have been influenced by the promotion of AFL programmes in rural remote Indigenous communities (Godwell, 2000; Hallinan, Bruce, & Burke, 2005).

       Researchers who have considered challenges associated with transition and relocation include a growing body of work that focuses on the study of culture and wider economic, social, political issues, and transition in sport psychology (e.g., Gutierrez, 1999; Parham, 2005, Schinke et al., 2006). These authors have highlighted the importance of culture and social location in shaping the transition experiences of ethnic minority groups. Gill (2002) pointed out that sport in general has been developed and viewed from the dominant Western perspective (male, white, heterosexual) and overlooks other social identities such as those based on race, gender, and class. Over the last 30 years several sport psychologists have started to examine the void in sport psychology that has resulted because of minimal attention to race, ethnicity, gender, and culture (Butryn, 2002; Duda & Allison, 1990; Kontos & Arguello, 2005; Martens, Mobley, & Zizzi, 2000; Parham, 2005; Schinke et al, 2006).

       In the year 2000 in Australia, past and present AFL players from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds attended a meeting with the primary goal of addressing issues faced by Indigenous AFL footballers. Subsequent to the meeting, Dr. Robert Kerr, Executive Officer of the AFLPA Players’ Association (AFLPA) at that time, addressed the press about the current issues affecting Indigenous footballers in AFL clubs. These issues included; isolation, lack of family support, racial abuse, inadequate financial management, the need to promote education and training, attention to issues of numeracy and literacy and relocation (Australian Associated Press, 2000). Dr Kerr highlighted that almost all of the AFL clubs had insufficiently provided for new Indigenous recruits giving little recognition to the aforementioned issues. The increase in participation and the issues raised in the committee provided the impetus for the present research project, where the authors set out to explore AFL players’ experiences and perceptions of relocation and settling into AFL clubs. Specifically, we intended to examine the processes of negotiating relocation and the nature and function of the support mechanisms in the relocation process for the players.

       Although there has been a significant increase in participation in the AFL, some have raised concerns about the settlement and other experiences of Indigenous players joining AFL clubs. Leaving family and community ties can make relocation a difficult experience for any athlete and it is accentuated when an individual’s identity and culture are tied to a specific geographical area or region (Dudgeon, Garvey & Pickett, 2000). People moving within their own country are not shielded from challenging experiences when moving into a new environment (Bhugra & Ayonrinde, 2004). Relocating away from home appears to be more challenging for an individual from a minoritized group because of social and cultural disparities and differences between dominant and nondominant ethnic groups as well as experiences of racism (Glover, Dudgeon & Huygens, 2005; Sellers, 1993; Sonn, Bishop & Humphreys, 2000). The way an individual from a non dominant ethnic group experiences relocation may be directly influenced by the degree of incongruence between his/her and the dominant group’s value systems (Berry, 1999). Berry’s research was further enhanced by his work with Indigenous Australians during the 1967 referendum. He expanded his existing theory of acculturation by including Indigenous Australians and the way in which they negotiated intergroup contact in their own country. He conducted a series of studies with Indigenous, immigrant and ethnocultural groups in Australia, Canada, and India and suggested two strategies for negotiating intergroup contact -- cultural maintenance and contact-participation. Cultural maintenance refers to the extent to which people maintained their cultural identity and behaviours such as continuing to wear traditional dress, attending social venues or clubs for people of the same culture, or celebrating cultural days or religious holidays. Contact-participation refers to the extent to which people valued and sought out contact with others outside their own group and their wish to participate in the daily life of the larger society.

       Some researchers have focused on culture shock to illustrate the challenges of moving from one culture to another (Furham & Bochner, 1986; Sonn & Fisher, 2005; Zapf, 1993). Oberg (1960) defined culture shock as “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (p.177). A feeling of impotence may prevail when all of the familiar signs and symbols of social interaction an individual has taken for granted in one’s own culture, have no place in the new culture he/she is moving into (Haskins, 1999). Circumstances leading to cultural shock depend upon previous experiences with other cultures, the degree of difference in one’s own and the host culture, the degree of preparation, social support networks, and individual psychological characteristics (Furnham & Bochner, 1986).

       Sonn et al. (2000) investigated the relocation and settlement experiences of Aboriginal students at a higher education institution in Western Australia. They reported that Indigenous students had to negotiate ways to deal with the relocation process and challenges associated with settlement (Furnham & Bochner, 1986). For one student moving away from a context characterised by separation between groups to a main city that is more integrated resulted in a heightened awareness of her racial and cultural identity. The experience of interacting with most ‘white’ people who she was previously separated from resulted in challenges for settlement and intergroup relations (Sonn et al.). The differences in social and community structures because of the disparities between metropolitan and rural remote areas may also challenge relocation and settlement. As one Indigenous student remarked, “We have all those barriers to overcome which are probably similar to overseas students, but it is different in a way because we are in our own country” (Sonn et al., p.9).

       Michael Long who is recognised for his work in challenging racism entrenched in the football culture stated in a media story on the Indigenous Footballers camp of 2004 that:

The issues they face are, homesickness, being away from family, living a different lifestyle, basically being in a different culture, being in a city like Melbourne or Perth and you come from such a remote community you’ve got to embrace it and vice versa they learn a lot about you, the club (Roberts, 2005)

       Relocation is not as simple as moving from one place to the next; it involves re-defining oneself in a new environment and negotiating how to maintain a sense of self in that new environment. The way an individual negotiates settlement in a new sociocultural environment requires the ability to manage daily life and the difficulties associated with the new environment (Berry, 2003). To adapt to the new environment depends on an individual’s psychological and physical wellbeing. At an intrapersonal level, this is enhanced by personality characteristics such as a strong identity and self worth (Berry, 1997). At an interpersonal level, social support is believed to enhance adaptation, and at an organisational level, adaptation is facilitated by cultural awareness from both the receiving environment and the individual making the relocation and the intergroup attitudes. At a deeper ontological level cultural embeddedness can also serve a protective function and is reflected in the notion kindredness. Dudgeon and Oxenham (1989) described kindredness as “an implicit depth of feeling/spirituality which transcends our cultural diversity and contributes to the continuing unification of other Aboriginal people.” (p. 37) Kindredness connects a person to both country and other Indigenous Australians. Goodes (2008) described kindredness and Indigenous identity in the following way;

It’s not about a map, not a town or a community you can stick a pin into and say “that’s home” because it’s not about a place. We all come from different places and different experiences, yet we come from the same place inside. What we have is a knowledge. A culture. And an understanding borne of being different in skin colour, which in Australia means far more off the football field, but that’s where people like my teammate Micky O’Laughlin and I get to express our Aboriginality. (p.19)

       Understanding relocation as a transactional process broadens the definition to include the interplay between person, environment, and society. According to Cronson and Mitchell (1997), moving to a new city is a major life event. Being drafted to play football in the AFL may involve two major life events – relocation to join a club in a different area or city and major career shift (progressing from one level of football to the highest echelon). These two major transitions involve adaptation, which refers to how people from a given culture “understand their surroundings [and within these learn to] function competently (Fiske, 2004, p. 25). “Humans are adapted to fit into face-to-face groups; groups are important to survival. People are not adapted to survive as isolated individuals (Fiske, p.12). If there is a degree of consistency in norms and expectations between the existing and new cultures, adaptation may materialise quickly (Marks & Jones, 2004). Adjusting to the new environment may depend on other considerations including; an individual’s ability to deal with expectations of the receiving environment; establishing whether the individual is familiar with the future destination; ensuring the individual has the opportunity to access family and social supports; and investigating how an individual perceives the new move. The parallel processes of identity formation or resynthesis may also challenge adaptation to the new environment. Juggling the move, new career, settlement and answering the coinciding identity questions such as “Who am I?” illustrate some of the complexities of relocation.

       To date there has been inadequate consideration of the relocation experiences of Indigenous Australians into the AFL. Within the current study, we aim to examine relocation and adaptation experiences and specifically; 1) describe and clarify the challenges faced by Indigenous footballers joining interstate AFL clubs, 2) identify the social, cultural and psychological resources that facilitate transition and adaptation.


       Limited research has been conducted investigating the relocation experiences of Indigenous Australian football players in the AFL. Through the current study the researchers sought to identify and describe the relocation processes from the vantage point of a group of Indigenous footballers. However, researchers have warned about the exploitative nature of social and scientific research in relation to Indigenous peoples (e.g., L. T. Smith, 1999). There have been extensive advances in developing research approaches that are sensitive to the realities and needs of Indigenous people and other minorities involved in research programmes (e.g. Schinke et al. 2006; Smith, 1999). The current study was informed by the principles suggested by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for engaging in responsive research. The NHMRC emphasise collaboration, competence and reflexivity. In this research we engaged in a collaborative process that centred on the establishment of an advisory group. The advisory group played a central role in promoting relationships within the Indigenous community, mentoring the first author about Indigenous cultural processes, and fostering a bridge role between different groups (Brodsky, O’Campo & Aronson, 1999; Dudgeon, Garvey & Pickett, 2000; Kim, Kim & Kelly, 2006; Sue, 2006; Westerman, 2004). The advisory group also fostered critical reflexivity. Following Parker (2003), we define critical reflexivity as a process in which we examine our own assumptions, motivations, and professional and personal identities in the context of relating across cultural boundaries. Critical reflexivity also requires that we understand the political and ideological nature of research and knowledge production and the implications research and knowledge production for those we seek to work with. In this research, the advisory group fostered critical reflection by supporting the first author in examining issues of colonialism and racism as well as exploring her anxiety about addressing unfamiliar issues or topics and accountability for the research process.

       Within this collaborative model, a qualitative research design was adopted because it has the potential to empower a person when the researcher provides a space for the participants to voice their own subjective experiences. More specifically, qualitative research is naturalistic and through it, the researcher seeks to understand the subjective experiences of individuals and the meanings that they attribute to events (Patton, 2004; J. A. Smith, 1999, 2004).

Ethical Considerations

       Given this research process involved Indigenous football players, a primary ethical responsibility was to seek the advice from cultural advisors. The cultural advisors recommended that a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (S.W.O.T) analysis be used to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved in the research, and to identify the internal and external factors that are favourable and unfavourable for individuals participating in the research. The S.W.O.T. analysis was recommended and driven by members of the Advisory group for the purpose of minimising harmful effects on participants and providing a basis for preventative support measures for participants if required. The main threats were; topics of harm, misinterpretation of information by community, poorly communicated relaying of information to participants, and breach of confidentiality.


       The first author worked with the AFLPA and this facilitated an invitation to the first author to attend the 2006 AFLPA Indigenous camp to recruit participants. Two trusted people who were already known to the footballers, the AFLPA Indigenous Programme Coordinator and AFL Sports Ready Project Manager, facilitated the relationships with the participants (Fielder et al., 2000). A total of 10 Indigenous Australian football players representing seven Victorian AFL clubs, belonging to eight different Indigenous nations spanning four Australian states and territories participated. Five participants were interviewed within 12 months of relocating to Victoria and ages ranged from 18 to 22 years (new draftees) and five participants who had relocated prior to 2002 (established players) whose ages ranged from 23 to 27 years. Selection of participants required that they first identify as Indigenous Australian and second be listed as an AFL player.

Recruiting Participants

       After the first stage of recruitment at the AFLPA Indigenous camp, participants were contacted by telephone and during each conversation the following five steps ensued. First, each participant was offered the option of having an advisory group member present during the interview and reminded about the role of the advisory group. Second, participants were offered the opportunity to view the letters of disclosure containing information regarding traditional tribal origins, family ties, and professional status from the advisory group. Similarly, letters of disclosure containing information pertaining to professional status, family background, education, and knowledge of Indigenous culture from the researcher was available for the prospective participant. Third, each participant was asked to nominate a venue suitable for the interviews to take place. Fourth, during this phone call the first author checked in with participant that they had understood the content of the information for participants. Fifth, participants were asked if the interviews could be audio taped.

Interview Guide and Process

       Guiding questions were developed in consultation with advisory group members based on the issues they anticipated may emerge for participants and based on research conducted with Indigenous participants who have relocated for study and career purposes (see Sonn et al., 2000). Some of the topics and questions included: the role of social supports and networks (Who would you say supported you most during this time?), settlement experiences (What did you do to get through a season being away from home, partner, children?), and family and community reactions to participant leaving home (How did the family respond to the news of you being selected by a Victorian club?).

       Prior to interviewing, each participant was reminded of the strict confidentiality of responses and that there were no correct or incorrect responses. Participants were also reminded that participation in the research was voluntary and they could withdraw at any time without the need for any reason or explanation and without penalty. Participants had the opportunity to ask questions throughout the interview. Participants were debriefed after completion of the interview allowing the opportunity for additional conversation and questions. For example, at the end of the meeting with one of the participants, we were walking back to the clubrooms discussing the interview and how he felt about the procedure. The participant began talking about the difficulties he experienced being away from his family.

       Each participant was informed that once the audiotapes were transcribed, they would be contacted via post, telephone, or email to let them know that the transcript had been completed and was ready for review. Each participant chose a method of contact (email or post) and agreed to review the transcript. The aim of reviewing the transcript was to add any missing information the participant felt was relevant or necessary, and change any information in the transcript that was inaccurate in their view. Interviews were semi-structured (interviewer had a list of guide questions to keep conversation flowing) and conversational, allowing participants to speak about issues that matter to them. Semi-structured interviews invite a conversational format and provide a method conducive to building rapport with each participant (Glesne & Peskin, 1992; Patton, 2004).

Data Analysis

       Data was analysed for unique and recurring themes following the procedures outlined by J. A. Smith (1999) and Patton (2004). Sections of the text were highlighted and short descriptive headings (e.g. family’s reaction to player leaving home) written in the right hand margin. This resulted in a list of major themes and sub themes that was constructed to capture the issues discussed in the interviews. Microsoft Excel was used to produce a table with each of the themes and the participants’ corresponding statements. Each participant’s information was colour coded. Participants, advisory group, and authors’ reviewed the data thereby providing analyst triangulation and enhancing the trustworthiness of the analysis of the data.


       Following data analysis we constructed several themes that can be conceptualised as facilitative and barrier factors. Barrier factors are those that hinder the relocation and adaptation processes and included challenges related to the lack of familiarity with the new physical, social and cultural environment as well as dynamics related to intergroup relations. Facilitative factors are those that enable the relocation and adaptation processes by buffering or protecting individuals from adverse events. These factors include social and cultural resources that provide supportive functions to individuals. Both Barriers and Facilitative factors are listed in Table 1. Pseudonyms are used in reporting the findings.

Table 1 Feature

Culture Shock

       Most transition experiences can involve barriers that can affect relocation and settlement. In the current study participants mentioned experiences that resemble culture shock. Culture shock occurred when participants were faced with the lack of indigenous visibility, isolation, and professional training regimes. James, a new draftee, said: “You don’t see many Indigenous people down here and when you do it’s sort of special because you have that comradeship, you learn to adapt though. There’s more (Indigenous) people coming through now.” He continued stating that: “Traffic is a big one. I still haven’t adapted to the traffic. Just the culture down here, you have to change everything. Like (hometown) is easy going, do whatever you want whereas in Melbourne you’ve got to watch your step and everything you do”. Chris, another new draftee, said: “Getting used to training. I remember I used to come home from training about 1:30pm, 2:00pm and wouldn’t even get to my room, I’d fall asleep on the couch” and, another new draftee, Max, commented that: “There is so much paperwork; I am not too good with that. They should warn you about the paperwork”. (Max, New Draftee)

       Homesickness is part of the culture shock experience and was also evident in the transcripts. Chris described his experience in the following way: “I do think about homesickness a fair bit, that’s probably the biggest thing. I grew up probably looking after my brothers and sisters ‘cos I was the eldest. You can’t just get up and go around the corner and see family. I used to ring home about 4 or 5 times a week when I first got here and I went home at least 7 or 8 times”. William, an established player, who had been in the AFL system for over five years, described his ongoing feelings of homesickness:

I think you experience a lot of lonely times, a lot of down times, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel you know, nothing is ever smooth sailing so you have to roll with the punches but um it takes a while to get used to a place. It probably took me three or four years to get comfortable here and I just stuck it out and was pretty lucky I was playing games early on and that sort of made it easier. Not having the family there is always the hard bit and not working a lot and not having enough money is hard on them too but thankfully, I can pay my own way now. The hardest thing was not having family there to fall back on.


       Another barrier experienced by some participants was racism, which was reflected in practices that homogenised Indigenous players. Racism operates as a form of stereotyping that undermines the individuality and agency of each person because they are judged according to a set of predetermined expectations. Paul, a new draftee, described his experiences in the following way:

If you’ve got some issues (coach) will pull you aside and tell you…it doesn’t mean just because you’re Indigenous you will experience what Michael Long experienced. There are very different cultures and different languages with Aboriginals so everything is different to what they say. They say all Aboriginals are the same but they’re not. That’s the one thing everyone has got to get straight, we’re not all the same.

Alexander, an established player, made a similar comment:

When I got drafted they had just had the (Indigenous player) era, ‘cous’ was probably one of the best Indigenous players going around. The only thing that pissed me off a little bit was that I think that a couple of things that he used to do away from the club with his night life, I think a lot of it reflected back on me when I was there. Therefore, they, a lot of the club thought his behaviours were going to be my behaviours and that sort of ticked me off a little bit. Dad got that sort of drift and didn’t appreciate it either.

Here the diversity of Indigenous Australians is denied and players are categorised according to scripts produced by mainstream Australia. The scripts, in turn, inform expectations about how Indigenous players will behave. This is what Hall (1990) referred to as inferential racism.

Social Support

       A key theme that we identified can be understood using the notion social support. Social support includes those family members who relocate with the player and provides a range of supportive functions such as someone to talk with and that helps put the struggle of relocation into perspective. Campbell, a new draftee, described the importance of relocating with a family member in the following way:

It would have been pretty hard without my mum. I remember speaking to a lot of boys last year, the other Indigenous boys that got drafted and found it hard ‘cos they were missing their families. Me having mum here they said “You’re lucky, I wish I had my parents here”. That opened my eyes up and I saw I was lucky to have my mum here and have her help me out. Takes my mind off other things being with my mum and just being able to talk about something else other than footy.

Support can also include mentors such as a family friend or an existing Indigenous player in the new context. Mentoring can take on many forms including validating players’ experiences. Chris felt that a family friend was crucial for his relocation and settlement;

My dad had friends here and I met Greg through one of my dad’s friends. It was really good having him here because we are so similar, brought up the same, he understands. It’s been real hard but having said that, Greg has been really good and helped me out a lot. Sometimes I have experienced times when I am trying to explain something and people don’t seem to understand what I am saying. I think to myself “What the hell’s wrong with this fricken idiot”. I don’t know how to explain it, but sometimes when you are different you feel as though others don’t understand you. It was hard but I had Greg, he understood me. I was lucky to have him.

Max relied on the knowledge, familiarity, and open door from an established Indigenous footballer at his club. He stated that: “There is another older Aboriginal player at the club and he has helped me heaps…. Just because he was Aboriginal, I just felt comfortable with him from the start. I didn’t know him before I moved to Melbourne and we just clicked. He treated me like a brother. If I didn’t have him I don’t know what I would have done.” A third way in which support is derived is tied with the notion of kindredness (Dudgeon & Oxenham, 1989). The term kindredness is used to denote a shared tacit experience between Indigenous footballers and was noted by many participants as an important relationship that facilitated relocation, settlement, and adaptation in a new environment. William described it in the following way;

It is just having people around you, you can trust, it is probably the same with anyone, whenever another Aboriginal or Indigenous person comes to the club you just always immediately feel comfortable with them, because they know what it’s like and it is so much easier to relate to them. They know and you know what they are going through because you have been in that boat at some stage.

       Although Oliver, an established player, did not use the term kindredness, he spoke about the values and characteristics he and other Indigenous players shared that illustrate the features of kindredness. He commented that:

It’s one of those things having older Aboriginal players at the club, there are (number) of us, they kind of look up to us. You look after them, that’s just the way we are, we just sense that we got to make them feel welcome, I mean we all get on well. We don’t even realise it but they are probably going home and think they are looking up to us, and we just treat them on the same level. That’s our job to make them feel welcome, it’s nothing different, that’s just the way we are.

These three factors do not operate in isolation, but must be understood within a broader historical, social and cultural context as well as the history of race relations in Australia. Each player emphasises different aspects of support. For some players family is central and, for others, Indigenous players or friends are important supports. But for all players there is kindredness that informs their sense of self. This is not an essentialist notion, rather it is a dynamic notion that speaks to the historical, lived and situated experiences that informs Indigenous realities (Dudgeon & Oxenham, 1989).


       From the findings there is indication that relocation and adaptation is a complex process that can be facilitated and hindered by a host of factors. In this research we identified social support as facilitative while culture shock and forms of racism worked as barriers to the relocation and adjustment processes. In this section we will discuss the themes (i.e., culture shock, racism, and social support) that we identified in relation to the relevant literature.

Culture Shock

       Many of the initial challenges experienced by Indigenous players in the current study can be understood as culture shock. These challenges included Indigenous invisibility, isolation, and professional training regimes. Those players who experienced a degree of consistency between their home and new environment tended to settle quickly as has been indicated in other research on relocation (Farrington et al., 2001; Furnham & Bochner, 1986; Kutieleh, Egege & Morgan, 2002; Sonn & Fisher, 2005; Sonn et al, 2000; Zapf, 1993). Indigenous AFL players moving away from smaller towns with fewer non-Indigenous Australians were faced with a heightened awareness of their own racial and cultural identity. Some players felt as though the differences between new and home environments were too drastic to adjust to in their first year of football. The lack of Indigenous visibility in AFL clubs and in the general community was also considered a barrier for adaptation. Limited access to Indigenous Australians can contribute to feelings of loneliness and sometimes a sense of “standing out” and being on show. Enhancing Indigenous visibility in the AFL is a way of combating culture shock. Yet, currently Indigenous visibility in coaching and administrative roles is rare and does send a misleading message about opportunities for Indigenous footballers after their football careers have ended. This is a problematic situation because the lack of representation may be interpreted as Indigenous players being locked into roles that do not extend to the administration and governing of football.

       Similar to McCubbin’s (1998) findings, it can be argued that the host AFL club has the responsibility of creating an environment that is supportive and will foster a sense of community. It is important for receiving AFL environments to create a welcoming environment for the new players. Such an environment may include having space for family members to visit, access to a mentor or like-minded person offering an open door, and education and information sharing between all parties about the home and receiving environment. Many things can be done to promote coherence, which relies on the mutual understanding of each player’s needs. Communication is essential in the planning processes, not just between the player and manager, but also between the club, player, and family. As McCubbin et al. (1998) have stated, a stronger sense of coherence is created when the individual relocating feels that they fit, belong, have some say in their future, and have some degree of predictability in a new place.


       The findings highlight the complex way in which racism manifests. In the present study racism was reflected in tendencies that homogenise Indigenous players in the AFL. These processes of treating all Indigenous players as the same is akin to inferential racism (Hall, 1990), which means treating players on the basis of unexamined assumptions and expectations. Hallinan et al., (2005; Glover et al., 2005) also discussed the role of this stereotyping in reproducing new racisms. Some participants experienced first hand the fall-out from previous Indigenous players behaving badly at their AFL clubs. They were “warned” about what not to do, and felt there was an expectation that they too would make those mistakes. There were many stories pertaining to modern racism, whereby an individual from a minority group is judged by dominant mainstream values. Players who were warned about “how not to act” were singled out based on their Indigeneity and appearance. One participant noticed a new draftee was warned about a previous Indigenous player’s indiscretions but a higher drafted Indigenous player with a fairer complexion did not receive a caution. Engaging with people based on the assumptions of homogeneity can lead to ‘sensitive’ stereotyping (Andersen, 1993). A sensitive stereotyper may have good intentions, but has an unclear understanding of his or her own assumptions and stereotypes and may overlook or minimise contextual cultural information or overgeneralise from a limited level of cultural awareness (Gridley, 2005). Players were very clear about what “worked” during their transitions. Several times they mentioned people in positions of coach, PDM, and player agent, who respected each new recruit’s individuality. Taking this approach was considered supportive and culturally aware in comparison with those that adopted an “expert” position. Consultation with and listening to players about their needs was described by players as more helpful than taking a position of expert knower, which more often than not reproduces racism and exclusion (Green & Sonn, 2006). Although racism occurs at every level of society, many Indigenous players are resisting and challenging stereotypes through community work and by expressing their ‘voice’ and telling their own story. Engaging in community is an excellent tool for mentoring and helping younger Indigenous Australians to have self-belief and a willingness to dream and to maintain contact with one’s own culture. At another level, being a role model to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was considered a way of breaking down negative stereotypes, showing others what is achieved with determination, self-belief, and dedication.

       In this study the researchers investigated the relocation and settlement experiences of Indigenous Australian footballers in the AFL. Following qualitative analyses of interview data it was evident that the factors that influence Indigenous AFL footballer’s experiences are diverse and operate at various levels of the social ecology. Based on the analysis, the researchers showed that players who identified with their old and new environments tended to integrate into their role as AFL footballer easier than those who did not. A greater awareness and insight into the new environment and the possible hurdles to overcome assisted with settlement and adaptation. A combination of cultural maintenance and contact-participation appeared to enhance the likelihood of adaptation and settlement (McCubbin, 1998).

Social Support

       Players who relocated with family tended to settle and adjust because of their additional support. These findings are consistent with previous research (Berry, 1997; Cutrona, 1990; Gullan, 2000; Petch, 2006; Robinson, 2005; Sarason & Duck, 2001; Trickett & Buchannan, 2001) showing the beneficial role of social support in buffering stressful experiences. It was also found that social support was important during the transition process because it provides continuity in terms of identity, culture, and sense of belonging. Although relocating with family can strengthen the support base for the Indigenous footballer, it can also add to the stress of transition and adjustment. It often means the entire family is separated from their own sources of support including extended family and country. A common observation was that each Indigenous player joining an AFL club has 45 new friends immediately; but the family are not so fortunate. This research suggests that footballers who relocated with parents had a smoother transition experience compared with footballers that relocated with partners (and children). These findings are consistent with McCubbin’s (1998) research with migrant families in the armed forces. Players struggled with their relocation and settlement when their partners experienced difficulties adapting and finding their own autonomy and independence through new communal supports. With the strict demands of AFL as an elite sport time spent with family is dictated by training and game schedules, club appearances, charity work and, in some cases, the footballer may also have a part time job which ultimately limits the quality time spent with family, a key ingredient for successful adaptation (see McCubbin 1998).

       Having access to a person who is culturally aware and provides an ‘open door’ type of support was seen as important. Similar to the findings of Sartour (1992) and Sonn et al. (2000), having somewhere to go to that resembles home, where a person feels they belong and can be themselves, was crucial for settlement and adaptation. Players chose to be with like-minded people (mentors) where they could express and strongly identify with their own Indigenous culture. Some players felt their AFL clubs minimised the importance of culture and felt pressured to withhold from asserting or expressing their cultural identity. One player went as far as saying he believed there was a strong expectation for him to assimilate into the mainstream culture at the club, but instead chose to seek out others that were similar to him for consensual validation.

       A common theme emerging in the data was the familiarity shared among Indigenous footballers, knowledge about each other’s culture even if they have lived miles apart. We used the notion of kindredness, a term coined by Dudgeon and Oxenham (1989) to reflect this shared emotional connection. Although their ‘country’ was sometimes 1200 kilometres apart, players talked of sharing a bond. The players reported the importance of extended family, ancestry, and heritage (kinship), and referred to the mutual understanding Indigenous Australians share. It is during these interactions that players spoke of being able to make sense of their new environment, when they were with similar others and sharing experiences. Whether the player was mentoring or being mentored, each discussed the importance of being with others from a similar cultural background.

       Almost all players engaged more with other Indigenous Australians (teammates, friends, family) and this facilitates cultural maintenance (Berry, 1999). As time progressed, some players engaged more with others outside of their group – a strategy known as contact-participation (Berry). Players who combined cultural maintenance and contact participation adapted to their new environments (home and AFL club) and settled into their new routines quicker than the players who preferred contact with only Indigenous Australians. Over-reliance on social supports was sometimes described as disadvantageous to adaptation and settlement it can prolong the transition process thereby undermining adaptation. Sonn and Fisher (2005) called this an insular escape mechanism – a survival strategy in an ostensibly hostile environment. There appeared to be several reasons for players choosing to socialise with only Indigenous people, including a lack of Indigenous visibility at the club, uncertainty about how to integrate their culture into their new environment, feeling uncomfortable in a predominantly white environment, and feeling lost.


       The current project responded to the call for research that is inclusive and respectful. To achieve culturally inclusive and competent research, an advisory group was established and several processes implemented to ensure Indigenous voices are involved in formulation and execution of the research. To ensure and sustain engagement was difficult and often not possible. However, there is much more that needs to be done to promote culturally inclusive research. For example, we can extend processes for participation and inclusion by using “talking circles” and “community meetings” or similar grounded techniques for information gathering and sharing. Having greater community involvement would have enriched the current study and strengthened collaboration. Nevertheless, the current study provides a glimpse into the experiences of 10 Indigenous Australian footballers and how they have negotiated their relocation experiences away from their home and into mainstream cultural settings. Although social and economic indicators continue to point to disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian wellbeing, this study provide examples of stories of strength, perseverance, and patience. Importantly, from the research there is indication that the footballers must negotiate multiple transitions as they become professional footballers. Recognising and understanding these dynamic transitions is important because at the heart of the transition and settlement process is the ongoing struggle to protect and strengthen Indigenous cultural identities within a broader context of race relations -- Australian Football League clubs provide the setting for these negotiations.


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