Reinventing the Aboriginal sports icon


Arthur Beetson was by no means the first Aboriginal rugby league player to pop up on the radar. There were several renowned Indigenous players before him. But through his unique combination of talent, application and leadership, Beetson redefined the Aboriginal sports figure as a complex, sophisticated character who became a team leader.

Before Beetson, the status of iconic Indigenous sport person was held by Lionel Rose: a boy who used his fists to become world boxing champion in the 1960s. But Rose, for all his achievements, was an old-style icon: a loner who didn't talk much, had one particular physical talent and shone only briefly under the spotlight.

Beetson raised the bar: he fused athletic prowess with brains, and transformed from the awkward outsider into a national leader.

Beetson, who died of a heart attack on the Gold Coast last week aged 62, was a burly front-row forward who moved to Sydney from Queensland in the 1960s to join the Balmain club. He arrived with the reputation as that rare breed of forward: a creative ball player who could attack as well defend.

But he soon found himself battling fitness problems. He earned the nicknames Half a Game Arty and Meat Pie Arty, in reference to his weight and lack of fitness. 

In the early 1970s Beetson moved to the Eastern Surburbs Roosters, which had been languishing at the bottom of the competition but was now under a new coach, Jack Gibson. Beetson responded to Gibson's mentoring and fulfilled his early promise by revolutionising the role of front-row forwards. 

Up to that point, front-rowers were valued purely for their size, strength and aggression. Beetson, surprisingly agile, was endowed with an almost magical capacity to offload the ball while being tackled, to free his arms from the often two defenders it took to stop him, and get the ball away to a fast-running second-rower or half-back who would convert the half-opening into a yawning gap. 

On a personal level, he was candid yet laconic, and developed a charisma that endeared him to everyone. Gibson appointed Beetson captain and he led the Roosters to two premierships, in 1974 and 1975. The 1975 team was considered one of the best in rugby league history and the images of Beetson being chaired off after the grand final victory are among the most famous in the game.

He became widely acknowledged as the best forward in the game, was chosen in the Australian team and appointed captain. 

His legacy is comprised of three elements. Firstly, he was a forward who combined strength with skill, and brawn with brains, an unusual mixture.

Secondly, his resurrection as a player for Easts gave lie to the existng stereotype of Aboriginal league footballers as gifted but inconsistent, and unable to overcome adversity. Beetson transformed himself from an overweight, ill-disciplined youngster into a role model of the highest standard.

Thirdly, Beetson was a leader. Between his ball skills, his victory over fitness problems, and his straight talking, he emerged as a natural leader for the Roosters, then Australia, and finally his home state of Queensland in the very first State of Origin match in 1980. 

His performance in that match, when he led the unfancied Queenslanders to victory over their clubmates from NSW, defined the new ethos of Origin: 'mate against mate', and installed the interstate rivalry as one of Australia's most intense sporting match-ups. Indeed, the State of Origin series has now superseded international matches as the ultimate rugby league contest.

Beetson's imprint in that very first match, his leadership and his candour, created a new model of rugby league footballer. 

Moreover, by showing the wider Australian community that an Aboriginal footballer could be smart as well as strong, and good enough to captain his country, Beetson set an enduring example to all Indigenous people about what they could aspire to, on and off the field.

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is editor-in-chief of CathNews, and lectures in sport and media at the University of New South Wales.

Topic tags: Michael Visontay, Arthur Beetson, Rugby League



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Existing comments

Beautifully rendered, thank you! Southerners don't perhaps realise the emotional weight big Artie carries in Queensland, where his calm countenance, his booming laugh and broad smile made him an integral part of every boy's childhood fabric (go Maroons). He will be missed.
Barry G | 06 December 2011

A fitting coverage of a successful rugby league player. Even to those non followers of that code the core of praising Artie was for his natural sense of leadership and pleasant disposition.He was able to attract all types of people to deeply like him.He carried his aboriginality on and off the field with easy distinction.

Leonard Tuohy | 06 December 2011

Beetson embodied the laconic Queenslander - a talented footballer and, more importantly, a man who overcome adversity. I thought the song was particularly appropriate for the video.
Pam | 06 December 2011

As a Southerner, one born and raised in Melbourne, and having lived most of the rest of my life in Adelaide, with occasional stints in the United States and elsewhere overseas, I know next to nothing about rugby, in either of its forms. And thus I admit to never having heard of Arthur Beetson until he died.

By all accounts, here and elsewhere, he was a talented athlete, a fine sportsman and an inspirational leader; a great person. But, in rightly celebrating and being thankful for his life and contribution amongst us, why do we have to beat so loudly upon the racist metal of his aboriginality. "Gee whiz, he was an aborigine and did all that; incredible; so now other aborigines can be inspired to do the same!".

Surely Arthur Beetson was a great Australian and all Australians, aborigine or not, can be inspired by his example and achievements. We continue to lock all of our young indigenous sportsmen and sportswomen into a rigid racist straitjacket if we continue to insist that they must wait for a Lionel Rose or a Cathy Freeman or an Yvonne Goolagong, or an Arthur Beetson, to find a "model".
John R. Sabine | 06 December 2011

A fair comment John but I think Artie Beetson’s inspirational example to Aboriginal Australians must be recognised. Aboriginal footballers before Beetson were often called lazy, unable to last the distance and unable to adjust to life in the big city. Beetson himself had that reputation in the early days. But he truly demolished it by the 1970s. His sporting achievements are legendary, but only part of his legacy. From his book he was clearly proud of his Indigenous heritage and his journey from a skinny bush kid to sporting hero. Family was always important to him. I hesitate to call him a role model because that term is often misunderstood. But there is no doubt his example inspired young Aboriginal people to aim high. As you say John, Indigenous people do not have to wait to have Indigenous heroes. We can all admire the achievements of Arthur Beetson in the same way as we can all admire the achievements of Cadel Evans. But sometimes an Arthur Beetson or a Preston Campbell or a Jonathon Thurston, admired and respected across the board, will have a special significance to their own people. There is nothing wrong with that either.
Brett | 06 December 2011

Thank you for this piece. As one who grew up at Bondi Junction and a life-long supporter of Eastern Suburbs (Roosters) I needed no introduction to the sporting genius of Arthur Beetson - the greatest Rugby League forward who ever played the game. And you spoke about icons - of Lionel Rose but there were many other indigenous icons during their sporting career but many ended tragically and perhaps the most tragic of all was the best boxer this country has ever produced - I speak of Ron Richards who was shamelessly exploited and whose later years were a tragedy. Hopefully, we as a nation have matured so we can not only admire talent wherever it exists but also cherish and protect it.
John Nicholson | 06 December 2011


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