It is one of football’s most galling statistics – in the 120 years since the VFL/AFL was formed, just one Indigenous person has umpired the game at the highest level.
That man was Glenn James and he left the field more than 30 years ago.
“It is a real indictment in terms of what we have been able to achieve, or not achieve at the AFL,” said the league’s national umpiring development manager, Adam Davis.
The AFL established Indigenous umpiring academies several years ago, but they remain a work in progress.
“Ultimately what we are trying to do is to introduce Indigenous youth to the art of umpiring and then from there share with them the opportunities that can be made out of umpiring at the highest level,” Mr Davis said.
While most AFL competitions are over for the year, a new season has just begun in the Northern Territory where some of the academy students will umpire for the first time.
Levi Wauchope started out at an under-12s game in early October.
“At first, I was just like ‘I’m not meant to be here’,” Mr Wauchope said.
“It was pretty intense, especially for little kids … my confidence started building up towards the end of the first quarter,” he said.
Mr Wauchope is an 18-year-old from a remote corner of West Arnhem Land, who boards at Darwin’s Kormilda College.
“Our teacher mentioned that we could do our umpiring certificate … I never knew it could be a career pathway,” Mr Wauchope said.
“It has got me pretty keen, I would go forward with it definitely.”
The teenager still has a long way to go to make a living out of umpiring, but he has already cleared a significant hurdle — overcoming a lack of role models.
“If you look at players, they’re able to look up to the Burgoynes, the Riolis, the Betts – unfortunately since Glenn James we have not been able to produce an Indigenous AFL umpire and I think role models are critical to the success of that,” said Adam Davis.
Mr Wauchope believes the dearth of Indigenous umpires has had an impact on how Aboriginal people think about the game.
“They don’t see other Aboriginals doing it, they think in their head ‘that’s not my thing because that is their thing, the white Australians’. They think we should not be in that sort of stuff.
“I would just like to see way more, you know, instead of just … white Australians umpiring – which is good – but having Aboriginal umpires would also be really good.”
AFL hopes for top level Indigenous umpire in 3-5 years
The AFL has acknowledged its umpiring ranks suffer from a lack of diversity.
“Certainly the last few years if you headed into an umpiring group throughout Australia it was full of a lot of white males and we are trying to change that – whether it be Indigenous, more females or more people from multicultural backgrounds,” said Mr Davis.
The league is hoping an Indigenous umpire will be working at the top level within three to five years.
The ambitious goal is based on a plan to convince an ex-player to don the green uniform.
Finding a role model
Two-time premiership player Matthew Stokes has been employed by the AFL to lead the recruitment drive.
“That’s my job at the moment – to get out to players that are playing now and to put a case forward to them to see if they have any interest in being an umpire [once they retire],” he said.
“If we can get that one player who has a bit of a name, has played AFL footy, and put them in front of Indigenous kids, give them that role model, I think that will go a long way in getting our numbers up.”
Mr Davis already has some ideas about who could be the best candidate.
“I wouldn’t mind having Cyril (Rioli) umpire, but I reckon Alastair Clarkson might have something to say about that.”
Article courtesy of ABC News Damian McIver