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AFLW illustrates importance of Indigenous role models

Indigenous footballers in the AFLW have a positive impact as role models for Indigenous women and girls, encouraging them to be active and play sport.  

By Tash Gunawardana

Danielle Ponter debuted for the Adelaide Crows in 2019. Image: Megan Brewer

On a Saturday afternoon in front of a record breaking grand final crowd, Indigenous footballer Danielle Ponter capped off a remarkable debut season for the Crows. Her three goals at the Adelaide Oval helped the Crows to secure their second premiership. 

Indigenous footballers have always been admired by Indigenous communities, and the same is true with the AFLW. Indigenous women and girls being able to see Indigenous women play at the elite level is special. They’re seen as positive role models. 

Indigenous AFLW footballers such as Ponter and former West Coast Eagle now Fremantle Docker, Tarnee Tester show Indigenous women that the opportunities in the AFLW are greater than ever. But they do far more than that. They are also important Indigenous role models for their people, whether they want to play professional sport or not. The impact of Indigenous women like Ponter and Tester playing in the AFLW has the potential to have a positive impact on Indigenous women and girls playing community football as well. 

Representing culture and family

“It means a lot to me, because personally I know that there is only, I think, three or four percent of my fellow Indigenous [women] that are playing in the competition,” Ponter said. 

“I think for us it’s more than just being able to be footy players. Because we represent so much more than football itself. We represent our culture and our people and where everyone is from and our family,” 

“So to me, [playing AFLW] means a whole lot.”

Ponter, an Anmatyerre and Maranunngu woman, grew up in Darwin and hails from AFL royalty. Her uncle is Essendon great Michael Long and her cousin is Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli. Ponter starred for St Mary’s in the Northern Territory Football League before she moved to Melbourne in 2018, where she played for Essendon in the VFLW. Then she followed her uncle and cousin to the elite competition when she became the first Essendon VFLW player to be drafted. Ponter was drafted by the Adelaide Crows in the 2018 AFLW Draft. She made her debut in round two of the 2019 season. Ponter capped off a remarkable debut season with a premiership. She cemented her place as an exciting young forward but also as a role model for Indigenous women and girls. 

Ponter said she didn’t have any female Indigenous role models in sport when she was growing up. The people who she looked up to were her family. 

“My Mum, I wouldn’t be where I am today without her, everything she has done for me. So in terms of role models for me that will be my sisters, my cousins and my Mum.” 

Tester, a Wilyakali woman, is from Broken Hill in New South Wales. She started playing football at the West Broken Hill Football Club and North Broken Hill Football Club. Keen to further her football career, Tester moved to Western Australia in 2016, and in 2019 she was drafted by the West Coast Eagles.

For Tester, her Grandmother was her role model. 

“She showed me that no matter what you do or where you come from, to always remember your people and always have that sense of belonging of where you’re from,” she said.

“But she also taught me that you can achieve anything and that you just have to have the resilience and strength to push on.”

Inspiring the next generation

Indigenous female role models are important to inspire the next generation of athletes and to inspire Indigenous women and girls to be active. Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that only 23.3 percent of Indigenous women were physically active in the previous 12 months, compared to two-thirds or 66.7 percent of non-Indigenous women. 

But with more Indigenous women playing in the AFLW, the hope is that those physical activity rates will rise. And the research suggests it will. The ‘After the Siren’ report undertaken by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre suggests that the AFLW is likely to stimulate greater involvement of young girls and women in sport and to produce many female Indigenous role models. Role models like Ponter and Tester. 

For AFLW players like Ponter and Tester, these statistics and research might not be front of mind when they run out onto the footy field, but they’re aware of what their visibility means and how important it is for them to be role models for the next generation.

“I just think it’s important for them to see someone from the same background and another Indigenous person playing at the top level in that elite league,” Ponter said. 

“So, they will think to themselves you know that they did it, so why can’t I do it [and] for me it’s important for me and those other four percent of Indigenous girls to hold our spots. 

“[So] for the next generation, that they will feel comfortable, because of the Indigenous girls that have gone through the same processes as them.” 

Cultural education is vital

Many Indigenous players are still being racially abused, even though programs are in place to help eradicate racism from the game. 

“I know my uncle, Michael Long, had a lot to do with that as well and I’m proud of what he did back then,” Ponter said. 

The Aboriginal Lives Matter movement means a lot to both footballers.

“I think the Aboriginal Lives Matter [movement] always is significant and holds that recognition of the hardships that people have faced,” Tester said. 

“I mean our people are not asking to be treated as anything more than equal,” Ponter said.

“And it’s sad it’s still happening. But what I think will help is just through learning and reflection as people and being open to learning about the oldest culture there is.”

The Crows women’s team do not go through Indigenous culture education. But Ponter sat in on the education session offered to the men’s team. While Ponter would like the women’s team to have Indigenous culture education sessions, she understands it would be difficult given the limited training and club hours their program allows.

“But wouldn’t it be great if programs like that were accessible to obviously female players and AFL players, which they are, because [the] AFL is being watched by many people, so I think the actions of AFL players will encourage a lot of supporters to react in the same way.”

Tarnee Tester believes Indigenous footballers in the AFLW should act as mentors to the next generation. Image: Megan Brewer

AFLW a platform for change

While there is still work to be done, both women are proud to be playing at the elite level and that they can be role models for Indigenous women and girls.

“For me,’ Tester said, ‘It’s a platform to reach younger generations. Not just Aboriginal younger generations, but the whole community to show them that no matter where you come from [if] you put in the hard work [you can succeed],” she said. 

“You can ask for help when you need it and the help is out there and that anything is possible if you just put your mind to it and work very hard.”

But Tester believes that Indigenous women and girls need to be provided with greater awareness of sport and other opportunities on offer. 

“I think obviously as Aboriginal people, we are really talented at this sport. So I would like to see maybe more of the Indigenous players being a mentor and role model to the younger generations, especially in AFLW,” Tester said.

“I mean not many of us get an opportunity to, because for me I am from a rural community and no one comes out there.”

“I think having the pathway to teach our people from a young age on how to eat healthy, how to be physically active and just healthy [is important].”

For Ponter, playing for the Crows has provided her with many opportunities. 

“Just the people you meet I guess. I am so lucky at the Crows, we’ve got so many groups of girls,” she said. “I have been able to create friendships that will probably last a lifetime.” 

“Also, people like the coaches and Andrew McLeod. He’s a great man and to be able to be coached by him has been an honour. To learn of him and other people like that. 

“That’s probably the best part of it.”

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