My friend Sylvie-Anne loves everything about playing netball for the Pearlers, except that their uniform, a skirted bodysuit in white and purple, “only looks good if you’ve got Aboriginal legs”. When I went to watch her play, the game was fast – every time the referee called a foul it was impossible to see what had just occurred between the women. The violence of it was so swift and subtle and skilled as to be invisible to the untrained eye.
The Pearlers is a club founded by Marcia Ella-Duncan. Ella-Duncan, 47, was the first Aboriginal scholarship holder at the Australian Institute of Sport and the first Indigenous person to play netball for Australia, for which she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. Outside of sport she has spent her life working in the area of criminal justice and child sexual assault. In 2007 Ella-Duncan ran as a Greens candidate for the Senate. The husbands and fathers of players I chatted with around the court frequently call her “amazing” but I am not sure it is these accomplishments they are thinking of. It might be her courtside manner.
I’ve come to meet her after the final match for the season of a team she coaches. The teenagers are still on court at Heffron Park, a suburban greenspace that one of the dads mutters “was deliberately chosen for its wind-chill factor”. But this is a gorgeous day, and the courts are ringed with people watching and cheering. I mention to the netball dad that I’m here to speak with Marcia.
“Marcia?” His voice lights up, “Over there!” He points across the court. There, a woman with short curly hair in a tracksuit is balling her fists, leaning forward on her toes, and screaming at the girls so the tendons on her neck stand out.
“Who’s in the circle?!”
“Brianna, don’t you DARE do that again!”
“Go for the ball! Sarah: Two hands!”
“Jana,” the woman puts two fingers to her own mouth and forces its corners upwards, “smile.”
My companion leans down to my ear. “Voice to strip paint,” he says, admiringly.
After the match I go with Marcia, her daughters, some of the other players and parents to a beer garden to celebrate the end of the season. It’s a friendly pub despite the large, breasty poster, directly above the young girls’ heads, spruiking Thursday’s “Tits ’n’ Schnitz Nite”. When the bartender realises the pink champagne is for Marcia, it’s on the house.
Away from the court, Ella-Duncan is softly spoken, articulate and to the point. “Netball saved my life,” she says. She suffered sexual abuse for years as a child; it only stopped when she was in her first year of high school. “It was very damaging,” she tells me calmly, “and I’ve spent most of my adult life coming to terms with that.” She lights a cigarette. “When I hit my adolescence, things got really bad for me. And I got really bad. Because my world was horrible, when I was at netball, everything was great.”
Ella-Duncan was born – and still lives – in La Perouse, a Sydney suburb on Botany Bay. She is a descendant of the Yuin nation, from further down the coast of NSW. In the late-nineteenth century, members of various Aboriginal nations were corralled into a mission at La Perouse, and the suburb still has a strong Aboriginal community. The ninth of 12 children in an athletically gifted family (three of her brothers are the famous rugby-playing ‘Ella Brothers’) Ella-Duncan puts their sporting prowess down to good nutrition: her father was a fisherman. Whilst other local families were “struggling to put a meal on the table”, the Ella household always had fresh fish, and vegetables from a patch out the back.
Seven years ago, “issues around racism” arose at Marcia’s former club. It was just at the time her daughters and nieces wanted to start playing, and Marcia wouldn’t expose them to that – so she founded her own club.
“We accept anyone,” she says, “but we make a special effort to engage young Aboriginal girls.”
When I ask her whether she thinks racism has abated since she was playing, she doesn’t pause to think. “No. It’s about the same.”
Sometimes, exactly the same. Jana, one of the girls on the team I just watched travels – both for training and matches – from Gerringong, fully three-and-a-half hours away. Ella-Duncan had heard through family that the girl was being discriminated against in her team, “not being picked for matches or, if picked, not getting a game”. She explains that Aboriginal players are sometimes seen as “unreliable” because they might not turn up to a match if they are obliged to attend “family business”, generally a funeral, and they’re punished for it.
I look over at the girl who has come so far. She is long and finely drawn as a racehorse. I’m told the car she was being driven up in had broken down, today of all days, near Woollongong. One of the other dads had been deputed to go pick her up, a three-hour round trip. In this community, it seems that someone will always be around to help.
Ella-Duncan has a gentle humour, along with the kind of gravitas that comes from having been on the dark side of everything, and having come back. One of the things she has brought with her is a sad-gotten expertise in racism. It’s “almost weekly”, she says, that some racist issue comes up on court. Recently, the Pearlers were playing a local team with several Jewish girls in it. One of the white fathers of an Aboriginal girl shouted, “should have all been gassed”. Ella-Duncan has barred him from attending matches.
However you look at it, courtside is a passionate place. “I’m really bad on the side,” Ella-Duncan laughs. “I’m highly competitive. Losing is not acceptable.” I realise she’s tongue-in-cheek. She has turned down the inevitable (and lucrative) offers to coach elite-level sport so she can focus on these children. She chooses teams where there might be kids like she was – “difficult children” or those she knows are experiencing family problems. “It’s one of the things I don’t do so well as a representative coach: I focus very much on the child, and winning becomes secondary to that. So I might have a strong seven, but I play all the players. I had a team of ten today, and I knew before I even got to the court that there would be no child who got less than half a game.”
Ella-Duncan is pulling back from a life’s work in sexual assault and criminal justice because, she says sadly, “I just couldn’t see that we were getting anywhere”. She’s working instead with the NSW government helping local Indigenous landowners. And here, with these girls. Who wouldn’t want someone who cares enough to scream at you, to remind you to smile, to find out why you are a ‘ratbag’ who doesn’t want to play? So many of these young women have experienced the subtle, skilled and subterranean violence that is racism, all but invisible to the untrained eye. “I tell the parents, ‘when your daughter’s at netball, and I’m coaching – she’s mine’.”