journalism / news

Multiculturalism: AFL’s newest business plan

Students from Islamic schools in Melbourne compete in the 2013 Bachar Houli Cup. Photo: Shannon J Power

It doesn’t take long for Year 11 student Sajid Chaudhery, an aspiring Australian Rules football coach, to get swept up in using time-worn clichés about the game.  He says the team he coaches has “got a lot of depth in our midfield” and his teachers have told him to “get the wins on the board”.

Chaudhery is a student at the Islamic school, Minaret College, in Springvale and is completing a Certificate 1 in Coaching.  He says that if he can’t become a professional AFL player he will pursue a career in coaching.

The opportunity to coach his school’s football team came about during the Bachar Houli Cup, which Minaret College are “proud” participants of.

Bachar Houli is a defender for the Richmond Football Club, a multicultural ambassador for the AFL and one of only two Muslim players in the AFL.

The cup that bears his name is a national football competition for students at Islamic schools in years nine and ten.

It’s an important program for a sport code that has long battled against racism and tried to promote inclusion for all footy fans.

The AFL introduced the racial and religious vilification policy in 1995 to address the issue of racial abuse.

While there has been a huge improvement, a handful of incidences earlier this year garnered national media attention.

Indigenous Sydney Swans player, Adam Goodes was called an ape by a Collingwood supporter.  Only a few days later it was suggested by Collingwood president, Eddie Maguire that Goodes would be especially interested in attending the musical King Kong in Melbourne.

Majak Daw, the first Sudanese-born AFL player, also faced racist taunts from Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn supporters this year.

Houli says he started the cup so that Muslim children can feel included in AFL.

“When I was growing up studying at an Islamic school we didn’t really have an inter-school sports program.  So I thought it would be a great initiative…to give these kids a good opportunity to play the game they all love playing, which is AFL,” says Houli.

The Bachar Houli Cup has received far reaching recognition; it was shortlisted for the 2013 Beyond Sport awards, whose patrons include the Dalai Lama and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The Bachar Houli Cup is a part of the wider Multicultural Program run by the AFL, designed to promote inclusion and community strengthening amongst Culturally and Linguistically Diverse people (CALD).

Students after a game in the first round of the 2013 Bachar Houli Cup. Photo: Shannon J Power

Kashif Bouns is the Multicultural Programs Coordinator at AFL Victoria and says the AFL wants the “game to be the reflection of our society”.

Almost all of the programs at the AFL and individual clubs in the league are not only about promoting the game to CALD communities but to also provide positive messages to young people.

The Nick Duigan High Rise program at the Carlton Football Club engages primary school children living in the suburb’s public housing to participate in footy clinics, to get them playing sport and to also teach them certain values.

“We use Australian football as a vehicle to promote healthy lifestyle messages and positive behaviour.  And each individual clinic, as well as teaching them the basics of football…they’re based on five key themes.  We concentrate on respect, teamwork, harmony, leadership and fair play,” says Ned Murphy, Carlton’s Multicultural Partnerships coordinator.

Murphy says along with teaching positive values, the long-term aim of the program is to divert “kids from high risk behaviour, by getting them involved in cost free sport after school”.

It’s a sentiment echoed by First Constable Nicole Poynton who represents the Melbourne North police station at the clinics.  The aim of which is to present the police as a friendly group in the children’s community.

“Cementing the relationships now, while the kids are so young, the police are here to help.  We’re not the bad guys, we want to be able to help you and if you’ve got any concerns or issues come and see us,” says Poynton.

Blues players (L-R), Simon White, Nick Duigan and Jeffrey Garlett with primary school students from Carlton Primary School. Photo: supplied

Centre for Multicultural Youth CEO, Carmel Guerra says that many of the new migrant groups may never have participated in organised sport, and there are some unexpected benefits of engaging young people in team sports.

“They learn the whole thing about rules, friendships, they make social connections, they get a whole lot of personal development that you get from meeting other people, you get all these other benefits that you never thought of.  And also learn a little bit about discipline, contributing to society and learning about responsibilities as well,” says Guerra.

Guerra says that the young people have recognised that “it’s a really good personal development opportunity”.

With 800,000 people involved in the game nationally it makes good business sense for the AFL to have a general social inclusion program that branches into specialised areas including the multicultural programs.

The AFL acknowledges that multicultural communities are a lucrative market.  On its community website it boasts that “Multicultural Australians have economic clout. Their spending power has doubled since 1991 and is now over $58 billion a year”.

Todd Sigalas, the Community Coordinator at Richmond, says programs like the Bachar Houli cup are a great way to celebrate the club and game.  But also are a great opportunity to introduce new people to the game.

“In terms of a business model, we’re becoming an extremely multicultural society and it’s really important for us to embrace different cultures at our game,” says Sigalas.

Sigalas says that Richmond has been proactive about trying to entice the burgeoning Indian diaspora to become diehard Tigers supporters.

“What we’ve noticed through our studies about the Indian community is that they are very passionate and loyal to their sport, once they get involved,” says Sigalas.

He notes that there’s an extra incentive for Indians to become Richmond supporters- the Tiger is the national emblem of India.

Guerra says the AFL must reach out to the communities that arrived in the past ten to 15 years because they are the most unfamiliar with the game and that’s where the population is growing.

“Population is not growing in relation to our white-Anglo community who are familiar with football.  The growing of our population is in all these new communities who are unfamiliar with AFL. So they really have to work hard to get these new groups to play AFL,” says Guerra.

Bouns says the AFL follows the government’s definition of multicultural – either a person who was born overseas, or has a parent born overseas.

The AFL says that club playing lists boast 14 per cent of players that classify as multicultural.  Of the 817 listed players in 2013, 121 players are from a multicultural background.

These numbers are not reflective of the Australian population and suggest the AFL needs to do more work to have a better representation of multicultural communities in the game.

According, to the Australian Bureau of Statistics one quarter of Australians were born overseas and a little more than 43 per cent of people have at least one parent born overseas.

Guerra acknowledges that the AFL is not reflective of society, even for more established migrant groups such as Greeks, Italians and Chinese.

“I think the AFL is still a pretty middle class, Anglo looking organisation and I don’t think it’s really culturally diverse, even though they have a second generation CEO,” say Guerra.

Guerra believes the AFL needs to make the multicultural programs more integral to the everyday business of their work.

Bouns says the multicultural and social inclusion policy “started as a social inclusion thing and a bit of CSR, corporate social responsibility.  But I think now it’s embedded in our core business.  We want to engage with the people, we want to use the power of football to include them in the society they are calling home”.

The AFL may be starting to realise the economic boon of multicultural communities and is actively seeking to include them in the game.  But they have been too slow says Guerra.

“If the AFL wants to remain relevant to the new communities living in Australia they need to be talking to these communities because that’s how the game will grow”

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