Aussie Rules teams take a knee as virus-hit season resumes

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Melbourne (AFP)

Australian Rules players united to take a knee Thursday in support of the "Black Lives Matter" movement as the country's biggest spectator sport returned to action after a lengthy COVID-19-enforced shutdown.

The entire Collingwood and Richmond teams, along with match officials, knelt in the centre of the cavernous -- and eerily empty -- Melbourne Cricket Ground ahead of the first game in almost three months.

Both sides wore black t-shirts for their warm-up in support of the worldwide cause against systemic racism, which has gained huge traction in the wake of the shocking death of George Floyd in the United States.

Aussie Rules -- played with a distinctive oval ball, similar to Ireland's Gaelic football -- boosts dozens of indigenous stars and players' association boss Paul Marsh said he hoped the moment would help educate people.

"We encourage the community to support the players by investing in building a greater understanding of the issues that have led to them taking this action," he said.

"Unfortunately, racism still plagues our community and we hope this moment helps to better educate as well as making it clear to all that discrimination in any form is completely unacceptable."

The sport has been blighted in the past by racism. In 2017, a fan accused of abusing indigenous player Eddie Betts was banned. The same player also had a banana thrown at him.

It followed the retirement in 2015 of Adam Goodes, one of Australia's most high-profile indigenous sportsmen who was subjected to repeated booing, widely believed to be racially-motivated.

The Australian Football League and its 18 teams apologised to him last year.

Thursday's gesture was made in a silent MCG, which usually hosts games jammed with up to 100,000 spectators.

But with fans starved of action since the season was suspended in mid-March after just one round, a bumper TV audience was expected and social media lit up.

"The lockdown taught me what's important in life. Footy. Just footy," said one Twitter user, although the canned cheering didn't go down so well.

"The fake crowd noise is just saaaad," complained one fan, while another said: "Have muted the tele".

While fans were absent on Thursday, the turnstiles will be open to just over 2,000 spectators on Saturday for the Adelaide derby between the Crows and Port, with the state of South Australia confident it is on top of the coronavirus.

It will be the biggest crowd at an Australian sporting event in months and follows New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa announcing that stadiums will be open to supporters this week.

Seven other games are being played this weekend, with strict health and safety protocols in place around players and their families. The league has tentatively set October 24 for its grand final.