Where’s the Reverend Sir Doug ?

Today’s mass media [Tues 2 Aug 05] have reports on and articles about the selection of Australian Football’s Indigenous Team of the Century, a group of men arguably more “Australian” than most of us, playing [or having played] a game more Australian than any other, a code of football with links, suggests historian Geoffrey Blainey, to an aboriginal game called Marn Grook.

Links to two of these articles:
The Mercury
The Age

To this reader and Australian Football fan, there seems to be a significant omission: Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls.

Young Doug Nicholls tried to begin his VFL* career with Carlton’s old dark Navy Blues in 1926, but left after six weeks because of racism.

He then had a choice: to follow a long line of Aboriginal young men and take the road more-travelled by joining the famous Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe —  or have another crack at senior football in a white man’s world.

Bravely, he chose the latter.

In 1927, he joined the northern Melbourne suburban club Northcote in the VFA**, where, FullPointsFooty reports,  “he quickly established himself as a wingman of the highest quality, full of verve, pace and determination.  The racial slurs continued, but only from opposition players and supporters; at Northcote he was accepted for what he was —  a brilliant footballer”. After six seasons there, he tried out again for the higher level VFL.

In six seasons at Fitzroy, one of the VFL’s foundation clubs***, Doug played 54 games. 

“On the wing his electrifying pace soon earned him accolades as one of the best wingers in the League. Small and compact [157cm (just over 5’1”) and 63.5kg (just under ten stone)], in 1934 Nicholls ran third in the best and fairest behind Brownlow winners [Haydn] Bunton and [W ‘Chicken’] Smallhorn, and in 1935 he was chosen in the Victorian team. Deeply religious, he became a Pastor and was a highly respected figure in public life. He was knighted in 1972 and was appointed Governor of South Australia [1976-77].”  (Russell Holmesby & Jim Main, The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers, fifth edition, 2003, ISBN 1 74095 032 1).

Australian Football has achieved much since the Melbourne-centred VFL expanded into a nation-wide competition in 1987, five years after the financially crippled South Melbourne was shunted off to an uninterested and even hostile Sydney. Having had two noticeably Sydney-focused PMs for much of the time since then [Keating, who quipped “mate, if you ...  don’t live in Sydney, you’re only camping out” and Howard spurning the official PM’s Lodge in Canberra for the harbourside delights of Kirribilli], the game of our own could have curled up in the face of that peculiar sporting cultural cringe north-of-the-Murray which disses “Aussie rules” as an alien game.  Perhaps the presence of PM Howard at last night’s induction ceremony is an indication of just how far one prominent Sydneysider has come   —  or, maybe, it was just another vote-enhancing photo-op.

The Australian’s Chip Le Grand put things very politely:

“Being a rugby league man, Mr Howard might struggle to tell you how many premierships Barry Cable played in; the finer points of how Polly Farmer changed the use of handball might also be lost on a confessed cricket tragic.”

It’s probably no good asking The Hon J Howard why Sir Doug was not up on the podium, but some of us would like an answer to this question: who, or what kept Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls out of Australian Football’s Indigenous Team of the Century ?

In http://www.fullpointsfooty.com.au , he is described as:

“[a]rguably one of the most famous, and undeniably among the most important, Australians of the twentieth century, Doug Nicholls’ most significant accomplishments transcended football.  Nevertheless, his football achievements alone merit considerable commendation.  A talented all round sportsman, Nicholls, who was a native Australian, had to overcome severe racial prejudice in order to make his mark.  He was a good boxer and sprinter, but his first love was football.

“Nowadays, many of the finest players in the game are native Australians, and doubtless the same would have been the case in the 1930s had society allowed.  However, in bravely confronting and overcoming deep-set racial bigotry Doug Nicholls played a key role in paving the way for a somewhat more tolerant, if far from perfect, modern Australia.”

After all, not many footballers [of any code] have been knighted, and even fewer have been appointed State Governors.

So, why not Sir Doug?

*  The Victorian Football League began as a break-away from the VFA [see **]; its first eight-club season was in 1897; it became the AFL in 1990

**  Both the Victorian Football Association and the SA Football Association were formed in May 1877; the VFA is now perversely termed the VFL [Don’t ask]  -  it’s where the Tasmanian Devils play, and the SAFA is the SANFL, reckoned as the strongest competition below the AFL

**  The Fitzroy Football Club was founded in 1883 and was one of the “break-away six” who formed the VFL in 1896;  it was “merged” by the AFL Commission with the Brisbane Bears [Australia’s own onetime “Bad News Bears”] to form the Brisbane Lions 1996.

Leonard Colquhoun 7248