Home » Rucci’s Monday Review: The significance of Sir Doug Nicholls Round

Rucci’s Monday Review: The significance of Sir Doug Nicholls Round

Sir Doug Nicholls Round is dedicated to the memory and appreciation of First Nations players and culture. Image: Matt Sampson.

ONE of the Port Adelaide Football Club’s finest graduates, SANFL premiership winner Andrew McLeod, wisely observes: “No-one is born a racist.”

He also advocates – “I am a firm believer,” he says – that it is better to educate rather than punish those who become racist.

For almost two decades the AFL has sought to meet this challenge by dedicating a round – now two rounds across consecutive weekends – to the memory and appreciation of First Nations players and culture.

Launched in the mid-2000s – and named in honour of Sir Doug Nicholls in 2016 – “Indigenous Round” reminds us of how far the game (and Australia) has come in that education promoted by Andrew McLeod. Well, at least on the field.

Sir Doug Nicholls was forced to change clubs in the early 1930s, moving to Fitzroy because his original Carlton team-mates would not accept a man of his colour.

Today, the only lingering note from Sir Doug’s era is the taunting that continues from outside the playing field. The ill-thought remarks on the terraces might be drowned out by the noise of a big crowd, but the echoing on social media forums is toxic. Here, we have not become better.

So the real challenge posed remains beyond this fortnight of admiring new football jumpers designed with the cultural markings of indigenous tales built on First Nations spirit.

There is the serious question as to why the number of First Nations players on AFL lists has been in decline since 2020 (from 89 to 72).

Port Adelaide has seven, more than any of its 17 AFL rivals.

It started its AFL journey in 1997 with an indigenous hero – Gavin Wanganeen – as its captain.

Port Adelaide was the first AFL club to have a First Nations person serve as a director, again Wanganeen who also – in his final AFL match, the season-opener in 2006 – became the first indigenous player to reach the 300-game milestone in the national league.

Gavin Wanganeen is chaired off in his 300th AFL match. Image: AFL Photos.

Even in its SANFL era, the Port Adelaide Football Club has embraced the beauty of diversity. It has not feared making a political statement in recognition of indigenous concerns, such as the date of Australia Day.

There is much more to Port Adelaide’s reflections and celebrations during Sir Doug Nicholls round than artistic jumpers.

Across two decades of a theme round dedicated to indigenous culture, Port Adelaide can proudly celebrate the achievements of its First Nations players on the field and its club staff for the ground-breaking programs off the park, such as the education-minded Power Cup that has inspired indigenous youth.

There are grand memories from those First Nations players who have built the foundation of Port Adelaide’s AFL wing. Gavin Wanganeen. Peter Burgoyne. Shaun Burgoyne. Byron Pickett. Fabian Francis. Che Cockatoo-Collins. Daniel Motlop. Steven Motlop. Patrick Ryder. Chad Wingard. Karl Amon. Nathan Krakouer. Jarman Impey. Shane Bond.

There are grand hopes for those who are following today, some in the footsteps of their fathers – Jase Burgoyne and Jason Horne-Francis.

Quinton Narkle, Jason Horne-Francis, Jase Burgoyne and Jeremy Finlayson in Port Adelaide’s 2024 First Nations guernsey. Image: Matt Sampson.

In isolation, the Port Adelaide Football Club is all Andrew McLeod put up as an ideal when he spoke to the United Nations speech in Geneva in 2011.

That speech also contained the proud note that in 2011 the proportion of Indigenous footballers in AFL ranks had doubled from when he started in 1995. The league’s policy to no longer tolerate racism, noted McLeod, had ensured First Nations players were spared “racial taunts by opponents – and even their team-mates”.

So what has gone wrong in recent years?

Across the next fortnight, the AFL will be a brighter stage with those new jumpers that tell a story – and have some fans admire with greater appreciation than their clubs’ stock uniform.

There is the opportunity – if we are prepared to accept it – to learn more of the world’s oldest known civilisation. We did last year when we came to understand why Willie Rioli became Junior and how he resumed as Willie, all in honour of his late father and in respect of his culture.

The Rioli family thanked the community for respecting and following its cultural protocols following a period of mourning. Image: Matt Sampson.

But is there a bigger challenge today than 30 years ago when Nicky Winmar lifted his St Kilda jumper at Victoria Park to respond to the racial taunts of the Collingwood fans by proudly pointing to his skin?

Is the stain left by Doug Nicholls exit from Princes Park at Carlton completely overshadowed by a game that no longer cares what race a player celebrates as his heritage?

Australian football carries many social agendas today. The fight against racism is one directly linked to the needs of the game – and not just its First Nations players.

It is a good fortnight for learning, just as Andrew McLeod would encourage.