Time to retire 'magical negro' trope from Aussie sport


Sports journalists trade in words. While an understanding of the game, insight into how it is played, and the ability to contextualise what is happening on the field are important skills, they hinge on the words with which they are articulated.

Cyril Rioli in actionOne of the tasks of the sports journalist is to shape narratives. There is drama intrinsic to sport, but the sports journalist draws it out, identifying heroes and villains, and slotting each performance into a broader arc.

Such power to influence the way the public understands a particular game or player ought to be wielded carefully. Too often, it is not.

This is best demonstrated by the ways in which commentators and journalists speak about Indigenous athletes, as well as athletes of other minority groups. A simple superlative can be loaded with more than a century of cultural baggage.

The way athletes are described can challenge stereotypes or reinforce them. Whether intentionally or not, all too often journalists perpetuate the idea that Indigenous athletes belong to a category of their own: they are the Other, to be considered and understood differently to white athletes.

It's hardly a new insight. Academic Sean Gorman has written insightfully on the 'Black Magic' trend, and former Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes wrote an excellent column in 2010 addressing exactly this issue. Yet the phenomenon continues, and commentators, journalists, clubs and fans continue to link the performance of Indigenous players and other players of colour with racist stereotypes.

Perhaps the oldest and most egregious of these is the myth of the magical footballer. Consider the nicknames of some recent Indigenous AFL footballers: Liam Jurrah 'the Warlpiri Wizard', and Michael 'Magic' O'Loughlin. Words like 'magical' and 'mercurial' are often used to describe impressive performances by Indigenous players.

Invoking the idea that Indigenous players have a supernatural skill set or understanding of the game plays into the offensive trope of the 'magical negro', a still-common narrative device that centres on a person of colour with spiritual wisdom or supernatural powers who intercedes to help the white protagonist achieve their goal.

Indigenous players and social commentators alike have repeatedly called out this trend as racist, yet writers continue to use the word 'magic' to describe footballers. Multiple stories written in the wake of last year's AFL grand final, including this and this, used the term 'magic' to describe Hawthorn star Cyril Rioli's exceptional, and highly skilled, performance.

Other stereotypes are less obvious yet perhaps more insidious. One of the most persistent of these is that Indigenous footballers are somehow more intrinsically talented than non-Indigenous players.

Words like 'freakish' (in this article on West Coast Eagles recruit Lewis Jetta), 'twinkle-toed' (in this one on former Melbourne Demons player Aaron Davey) and 'instinctive' (said of Sydney Swans star Buddy Franklin here) emphasise natural capacity and ignore the extraordinary work and discipline required over years to succeed.

As recently as 2014, an Australian newspaper unironically used the term 'talented natives' to describe a group of young Indigenous footballers. The article went on to quote a coach saying that the players' 'natural instincts were unbelievable'. Such focus on a perceived intrinsic talent minimises the achievements of Indigenous footballers.

Sometimes it is not specific words, but the way an athlete's career and decisions are represented that invokes racist stereotypes. This is especially true in the case of early retirement.

Even though the days are past (though only recently) where a club might say openly that it won't recruit Indigenous players because they are 'unreliable', reporting around the circumstances of some Indigenous footballers' early retirements perpetuates the 'unreliability' myth.

The phenomenon of players leaving the game at what could be perceived as the height of their career is neither restricted to, nor more pervasive among, Indigenous players. Yet when Indigenous players choose to leave the game, their culture is portrayed as being central to that decision.

Since sports journalism is an industry of words and of narrative, it is the responsibility of every journalist to consider the role their words play in creating and perpetuating stereotypes. For starters it's time we remove 'mercurial' 'magical' and 'natural' from the lexicon of sport.


Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Topic tags: Erin Riley, AFL, Aboriginal Australians, sports journalists



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Existing comments

North Melbourne wing man Laurie Dwyer was known as "Twinkle Toes". He was white. So was Alex Jasaulenko to whom the epithets "magical", "mercurial" and "wizard" were aptly applied.

John | 26 February 2016  

I agree with the theme of this article. In my opinion this practice is patronising and racist and demonstrates that most sports journalists and retired footballers who work in the media are inarticulate. The use of language such as the words magical and wizard is racist because these words are rarely used to describe the brilliant play of non-indigenous players when words such as mercurial and brilliant are used. The worst of these sports journalists are blokes such as Bruce Macavaney, Anthony Hudson, Gerald Whatley who think that 'schoolboy' enthusiasm is humorous. These journalists are also often racist when referring to aboriginal players 'going walkabout' when they make a mistake. These sports journalists also have a misguided view of the meaning of toughness in football and often refer to thugs such as the former Hawhorn player Dermott Brereton as tough because of his football style of brutality. It was interesting to compare the sports journalist's comments when referring to the brutal style of the aboriginal aussie rules player Byron Pickett player as 'dirty' and they referred to Brereton's brutal style as tough. In my opinion, toughness is both about a players mental strength to influence his team mates to play better and also to continue to play well despite fatigue and/or injury. Two of the toughest footballers of all time are aboriginal players such as Graham 'Polly' Farmer in aussie rules and Jonathan Thurston in rugby league. Other very tough, but fair, aboriginal players in aussie rules football are blokes such as Barry Cable, Michael Long, Nick Winmar, Peter Burgoyne, Gavin Wanganeen, Adam Goodes, Andrew McLeod and Mick O'Loughlin.

Mark Doyle | 28 February 2016  

Our Australian Aborigines are wonderfujl people who still, in 2015, are not considered our equals. Have any of these negative got to know well any aboriginal people and listened to their stories. Or, are they writing for a minority who consider themselves "above others,"who may not be Australian born and bred.

BevSmith | 29 February 2016  

This is an insightful article. Thankyou for raising the issue. I am delighted to learn that we have an historian looking at the role of sport and its institutions in australian society. In this country sport has replaced church as the yardstick for right and wrong, the voice of fair and a key player in the shaping of public opinion. I look forward to reading more of Erin's writing.

Karen Wall | 29 February 2016  

How should these writers refer to such uncommon and gifted skill. You are of course aware that in the US NBA, there is agreement that white men can't jump. Would it be more politic to refer to the different physiology? Please provide the examples of the way such narrative should be rewritten. Racism was evident in the Adam Goodes saga last year, the media providing accolades to the indigenous players seems the opposite despite your disapproval of certain "unearthly" language.

Luke | 29 February 2016  

Oh, please.....Now the words "magic" and "twinkle toes" are racist and pejorative. Ridiculous. Look for offence, as this author does, and you'll find it.

Peter Goers | 29 February 2016  

We don't like difference, even if we individually deal with it in a balanced way the primal reaction clicks in by way of the protective spheres of our survival consciousness - it's powerful and immediate stuff. Sociology, psychology, anthropology etc are all important yet wisdom gathering time can be well spent down around the chook house watching what's going on. Even enjoying a quiet read of the best of John Henry Newman the chook resides within me.

paul goodland | 29 February 2016  

At last someone attempts to call it for what it is - generalized social racism. But it is not just in sport. Consider the acclaim we give to any aborigine who achieves some high personal goal – in sport, the professions, the arts, business, academia, or just general living. The media applaud it profusely, we all marvel at it unreservedly, there is an all-pervasive sense of, well, gee whiz, isn’t that marvellous; fancy an aborigine doing that; who would have thought it possible? Applause is given not because the person involved came from a very disadvantaged background, overcame many personal and professional difficulties, successfully crossed many barriers, jumped many hurdles, all of which are frequently true, but simply because they are aboriginal. There is clearly an underlying assumption here, never overtly expressed but undoubtedly always present, one that senses someone ‘aborigine’ as being someone in some way inherently less capable. Hence the wonder of it all. This is the racism we all have to confront and destroy.

John R. Sabine | 29 February 2016  

This argument needs far more evidence. Most of the descriptors here have been applied as much to non-indigenous players. Of course it is likely racism and inappropriate differentiation is evident in the current language but not many examples in this article reveal it.

Tim Galbally | 29 February 2016  

Thanks Erin for highlighting this issue.

Tess Harris | 29 February 2016  

Surely the call to sports journalists should not be to stop using such words as "mercurial" "magical" and "natural" for how could they begin to describe Messi on the football field, Vonn on the slopes and Curry on the court but rather to be aware of the the use of these words when describing the achievements sports people from a particular racial group It is the context in which the words are used rather than the words themselves that is critical.

jim quinn | 29 February 2016  

Thanks for this excellent short but corrective article. Once we start noticing and valorizing race regardless of our motives we leave behind not only biological science but the most basic Christian doctrines of humanity. One race: human. One problem: we disobey God. One solution: Christ.

Steve Etherington | 29 February 2016  

There is undoubtedly a level of racism in Australian society and sport. But the article fails to admit one truth, which puts a big dent in the case it proposes: Many aboriginal athletes are exceptional. One only has to watch the way a Tiwi Island team plays football, and compare it to a comparable size country town anywhere in Australia. They play it on a different level. I recall a remark I heard one of the Northern Territory players, already established in the AFL, make to another NT player trying to follow in his foot-steps. "Just don't worry about the fellows down here (Melbourne), just go for it, they'll never catch you". For the most part he was right.

Vin Victory | 29 February 2016  

I don't know. I can see Erin's point, up to a point. But the great Reg Gasnier was "Puff the Magic Dragon" in the 1960s (before most people knew what the song was about). Andrew Johns was described at different times as a magician with the football, as was Shane Warne in his prime with a cricket ball. There are other examples and it isn't generic and maybe that's part of the problem. But the point is, if these terms are only to be applied to non-Indigenous athletes, is it not just the same thing from a different angle? Why use them at all when they are sloppy cliches and poor journalism? "Magic" and the other words completely underestimate the level of skill involved at an elite sporting level and the many, many hours and years of training and effort required to show the world perhaps a few unforgettable seconds of "magic".

Brett | 03 March 2016  

The way the social media "outrage industry" is so hypersensitive to things I'd otherwise not notice is starting to lead to empathy fatigue for me and I find myself making a conscious decision to take things at face value and not get caught up in analysis that condemns something that's positive on the surface as racist or sexist or whatever-ist.

AURELIUS | 07 March 2016  

So, it would seem that sports journalists, who spend quite some years perfecting their descriptive reporting skills to satisfy an insatiable public, should not report on indigenous players at all or at least avoid all colorful, traditional or colloquial qualifiers. Reading the sporting outcomes could be very boring.

Phil Hayden | 09 March 2016  

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