Published as ‘PC Footbrawl’, Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 17 May 2008, p. 37.
Here in Australia we have one of best games of football on the planet. That’s not just my judgment. Way back in 1883, Richard Twopenny, who had played rugby union, soccer and footy pronounced, ‘I suppose it is a heresy for an old Marlburian [his English public school] to own it, but after having played all three games, Rugby, Association and Victorian—the first several hundred times, the second a few dozen times, and the third a couple of score of times—I feel bound to say that the Victorian game is by far the most scientific, the most amusing both to players and onlookers, and altogether the best.’
But where did the game come from? This year the Australian Football League has chosen to celebrate 150 years of football and has published a blockbuster of a book and restarted a debate about the origins of the game. Journalist Martin Flanagan asserts that we have a bastard of a game which is influenced by English, Irish and Aboriginal traditions. He admits that Aborigines had no part in drawing up the first rules of the game in 1859, but argues that, through Tom Wills, some aspects of Aboriginal culture and specifically the game of marngrook, had a conscious or unconscious impact on the early game. The rediscovery of an etching from the 1850s which apparently shows some young Aborigines lining up to play kick to kick with a possum-skin ball seemed to lend weight to that notion.
The problem is that there is no contemporary evidence that Wills saw Aborigines playing marngrook and in none of his or his family’s correspondence or in published sources about Wills is there any mention of Aboriginal sport. His involvement with the Aboriginal cricketers who toured England in 1868 does not prove that he brought marngrook ideas to football.
He certainly was a man who pushed the boundaries of all the sports in which he took part. He was called for throwing in cricket for his overarm bowling. He was upbraided for using an oval ball instead of a round one in football. He may well have influenced Geelong’s running game which was a feature of the first decade or so of football. But was any of this specifically derived from his experience among Aboriginal youth? Nothing in his writing or writing about him suggests so until the late 20th century and even the notion of ‘a game of our own’ is only attributed to him for the first time in 1914.
Australia and footy are not alone in having founding myths. Baseball, rugby union, and golf all have their origin stories, each of which has been demolished by historians, but which cling to the popular mind and the sporting bodies like limpets. Political correctness and wishful thinking conspire in rewriting history to correspond with the present fashion.
Thanks to John Bale and others we are much more aware that some forms of indigenous cultural practices which bore some apparent similarity to modern sports had no direct relationship with them. His masterly dissection of Tutsi high jumping, Gusimbuka-urukiramende, demonstrates that a skill which appeared to be superior to that of any competitive sportsperson of the late nineteenth century did not translate into athletic performance. Many team games with balls have been claimed to be distant ancestors of Association Football, but none has a direct connection to that which was codified in England in the mid-nineteenth century.
So I don’t think we need a founding myth for footy; it stands on its own feet. And the Aboriginal contribution to the game in last half-century, from Doug Nicholls and Polly Farmer to Andrew MacLeod and Adam Goodes, is a superb heritage to have without trying to claim a role in its origins in advance of finding relevant evidence. But that does not mean we should stop looking for that evidence.