Australian Rules Football is one of the nation’s most beloved sports, but new research by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) reveals the particular benefits of the game for Indigenous players, with those who engage in football being healthier, happier and better connected.
The report, After the siren: the community benefits of Indigenous participation in Australian Rules Football, shows the benefits of playing AFL extend beyond physical health, highlighting the positive mental health and community level outcomes.
“Of significance is both the high rates of young Indigenous men participating in AFL – reaching up to 65 per cent in remote areas across Australia – and the positive impact this has on mental health, even after controlling for a range of factors, including age, remoteness, socio-economic, labour force and marital status,” says report author and BCEC Principal Research Fellow, Associate Professor Dockery.
“This finding is particularly important given the high rates of psychological stress and incarceration experienced by Indigenous men. The incarceration rate for Indigenous juveniles is 24 times that of non-Indigenous youth. AFL has an important role to play in fostering mental health and positively engaging disaffected youth.”
AFL is currently the second-most popular team sport among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, with almost 45,000 players, and in Western Australia, one in four Indigenous men in Western Australia play AFL, second only to the Northern Territory.
Professor Dockery said footy was a vital part of life in remote Indigenous communities in WA and central Australia, including the Northern Territory and northern South Australia, where football carnivals and festivals bring different family groups together.
“Football offers opportunities to strengthen and pass on kinship networks, and for men and women to gather separately to talk about issues,” says Professor Dockery.
“It’s not just players, it’s umpires, bus drivers, cooks, administrators, friends, family – football brings the whole community together.”
The report identifies considerable potential for deriving benefits from greater investment in structured AFL competitions and other sports programs in remote areas.
“Given the strong evidence of the benefits of AFL for Indigenous children and youth, along with their love of footy and the well-known issues facing many remote communities, we were surprised to find a number of remote centres had no junior football competition,” says Professor Dockery.
“We recommend all tiers of government and local education, health, employment and justice agencies work together with the AFL to get a footy competition up and running in these communities, possibly by coordinating funding for a sports development officer.”
The report also found that AFL is an inclusive sport that offers wide accessibility irrespective of socio-economic background, and that women’s involvement in the sport had almost doubled since the League began in February 2017.
There is still much progress to made to address and reduce the inequality that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But on the football field at least, they compete on an equal footing, both against one another and alongside one another as team mates.