Why don't we see more Aboriginal footballers playing in the Ovens and Murray League?
That was the question raised by Dean Heta, speaking on The Border Mail Sport Podcast, when he opened up about his own journey through education and sport as an Indigenous man.
Heta, a premiership player at Albury, started his football career at Wodonga Raiders and has taken part in Indigenous games at both clubs but doesn't yet see the cultural diversity of our society replicated within the sport.
In his day job as a principal advisor for Aboriginal engagement, one of Heta's main focuses is around creating a safe environment for people from culturally diverse backgrounds and he believes football can take similar steps.
"I've played 170-odd games over a period of years but I can nearly count on two hands how many Indigenous players I've played against in each senior side," Heta said.
"There's so much talent out there from an Indigenous perspective and there has to be a reason why we're not engaging with these talented players and why we don't have more Aboriginal people playing within our league.
"I want to look at what pathways we can create that would encourage Indigenous players to be part of our Ovens and Murray clubs."
Heta was the driving force behind last season's Indigenous game between Albury and North Albury and he was encouraged by the traction it gained. But to effect real change, he knows that seed has to take root.
"I don't want it to be a tokenistic, one-off thing," Heta said. "I want it to be something that's embedded into not just Albury but the Ovens and Murray.
"I was really surprised by how much publicity it got and how people jumped on board and the comments I got from other clubs saying 'we're going to do this next year.'
"That was really big and, whether I'm in the Ovens and Murray next year or not, they've got the foundation to make it happen and to hopefully, one day, see an Indigenous round with Indigenous players playing at every club and clubs really creating that culturally safe environment for all culturally diverse people to be able to join their club and be proud of that.
"I'm really proud of not just our club but everyone that got involved and I hope it continues."
Heta's first-hand experience of discrimination hints at the progress which still needs to be made.
"Playing footy as a junior, we'd finished the game and were shaking hands with the opposition," he recalled.
"As I was walking past one kid, I heard 'great game, Vegemite.'
"It took me a while to process it and I was like 'gee, I don't know what he meant by that.' It doesn't seem like anything big and I'm lucky because I'm strong in who I am but for some people, that would really impact them.
"If you're constantly having people attack you in those ways, it could certainly take you down a different path. I can see how people live a very angry life because of that."
Heta, born to a Maori father and Wiradjuri mother, revealed that was one of many such incidents on the football field. He loved growing up on the Border although his experiences at school now reveal issues which he didn't, or couldn't, truly process at the time.
"It's not so much the comments people make as the things they do," he said.
"I was probably put into the 'too hard basket' because I was minority in many ways. I wasn't very smart, probably behind the eight-ball in most of my grades and I was someone teachers needed to put a lot of extra work into.
"Being Aboriginal, a lot of teachers didn't know how to interact with me and at that time, there wasn't a lot of education for teachers around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history or how to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students so I was sometimes left alone.
"At other times, there were comments like 'you're probably not going to make it through to Year 12 so you might as well leave now and find an apprenticeship.'
"I left that conversation angry and it wasn't the first time, either. Nearly every year there was a similar conversation but that one resonated with me.
"I knew I had to do it for myself but I also wanted to prove a lot of people wrong.
"I remember going home and sitting on that for a while. I double-guessed myself, I thought 'maybe I'm not equipped to finish Year 12 and I should get a job' but I'd seen what my brother, Hayden, did and it was something I wanted to do. Neither of my parents finished Year 12 and after Hayden, I was only the second person in my family to do so.
"A lot of teachers, back then, wouldn't have given me a chance to even finish Year 12.
"I don't think it happens as much now but you only have to look at the statistics to see that Aboriginal people are still dropping out of school a lot earlier than non-Indigenous people and we can see the the ripple effect that has when they do drop.
"I'm not saying it's all because of education but there's a lot more education can do to improve how we engage with Indigenous students and how we retain them, the things we put in place to support them.
"There's a lot more work we can do in that space because there's no doubt Indigenous kids are still being judged on the fact they're Aboriginal and being put into that 'too hard basket.'
"You've got 20-something other students in class and when you've got one or two Aboriginal students who are a little bit more difficult than other students, that teacher isn't equipped to be able to deal or work with that Indigenous student.
"I have seen a massive improvement though. When I was working at Melbourne University, we'd seen a huge increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolling at uni, which meant they'd had to complete Year 12, so it's come a long way even from the time I went to school."
The conversation around racism in football came to the fore this season when Heta's Albury team-mate, Jeff Garlett, was allegedly the subject of verbal abuse during a game.
While the Ovens and Murray's investigation proved inconclusive, the subject hasn't gone away.
"I really feel for people like Jeff," Heta said. "He's a really quiet fellow who goes about his business. He loves footy, he loves his people and when he copped that abuse, it really rocked him. I really felt that for him.
"There is still racism out there, you'd be naive to think there's not, but there's also a lot of uneducated people out there.
"I've said all along that we don't fight fire with fire, it's about being able to educate people and these incidents provide a really good opportunity to do that.
"I'm not saying we just brush it off because we condemn any abuse within football; whether that's directed at an Indigenous person, a person from a culturally diverse background or whether it's abuse to an umpire.
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"But we've got to use these opportunities to educate people and to start to create that awareness of our culture and our shared history - not just Indigenous history. I think that's really important.
"As much as it shocked a lot of people, especially within our football club, myself included, it was a really good opportunity to raise that awareness.
"We know racism when there's malice intended and we know when it's just being naive and not having that right education. I think something like that might have been along the lines of not having that right education.
"It's people like that who need to think about what they say and the impact it's going to have and understand that whether they think it's just a bit of a tongue-in-cheek or whether they actually meant it, they need to think about the consequences it has on other people."
Heta looks back to his upbringing as foundational in his career within Aboriginal engagement.
"Mum and Dad are both very strong in their cultural heritage and I was lucky to grow up with that in my family," he said.
"I started working in mental health but I knew I needed to be doing something that made a change at a bigger level, change you might not see now but hopefully in the years to come.
"I tried my hand in the employment industry, found myself working at the University of Melbourne and fell in love with what education was about and what it does to support our people in creating a positive life for them.
"There's been a huge shift in the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia and we're on the right path to seeing reconciliation but we can't sit on our hands and think it's going to happen just because we've put a few things in place and organisations are being a little bit more culturally aware.
"There's always more improvement but I'm positive about what organisations are doing to support Aboroiginal and Torres Strait Islander people, looking to increase employment, education and close some of the gaps."
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