Indigenous Sport Month: How rugby league was the original bridgebuilder between black and white

All week we’ve celebrated the NRL’s Indigenous Round and this year it fell in the same week we marked National Sorry Day and the beginning of National Reconciliation week where it’s theme:

More than a word, Reconciliation takes action inspired me to write this.

So with that in mind and if you’d like to listen, I’d love to tell you more about the importance of this round from my perspective and how Rugby League was actually the original bridgebuilder between black and white.

For those who might not know, Sorry Day (every May 26 since 1998) remembers the atrocities that were committed against Aboriginal people through the forcible removal of children that most people now know as the Stolen Generations.

This was a time in Australian history when Indigenous people lived under what can only be described as draconian and extremely oppressive restrictions, officially it was called the Aborigines Protection Act and it began back in 1909.

It was an era of compulsory racial segregation where Aboriginal people were forced off their land and onto missions and reserves.

Former fullback Greg Inglis talks with Latrell MitchellSource:News Corp Australia

They had to seek permission to move, to work and to marry just to name a few and were restricted from interacting with Indigenous brothers and sisters to perform and practice culture.

Rugby League brought hope.

Aboriginal men were quick to take up the game and then had opportunities to play shoulder to shoulder alongside The Arrivals in what I like to consider a reconciliation story of early coexistence.

It was a ticket to freedom.

Rugby League had immense emancipatory potential then and it still does which I think makes our great game a bridgebuilder and powerful space for change.

The Aborigines Protection Act was finally reversed in 1969 (60 years later) but the legacy of the legislation endures among the thousands of Stolen Generations around the country in what’s called intergenerational trauma and unfortunately it manifests today in statistics on disadvantage and inequality for our First Nations people.

While Indigenous people make up 4 per cent of the Australian population, the NRL proudly over indexes with 12 per cent of our NRL playing group identifying with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

This year the round has been lead by our current Indigenous players who want to use the week to take action and highlight some of the social injustices facing the community. Their goal is to educate in hope of changing attitudes, changing beliefs and changing behaviour.

This year’s NRL Indigenous Round theme is a continuation of what we began building last year, Pass Back, Move Forward. We pass back to look into our history, acknowledge and recognise what unfolded in order to move forward in the pursuit of Reconciliation and of peace.

Indigenous player Johnathan ThurstonSource:AAP

The week culminates of course across the four days footy with our final games to be played on Sunday. We celebrate the undeniable contribution Indigenous players have had on the game, can anyone really picture it without the likes of Artie Beetson, Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston? Or more recently Josh Addo-Carr and Latrell Mitchell?

Rugby League is part of the DNA of our mob and the contribution is part of the fabric of the game and that’s the way it’s been from the very beginning.

So how do we continue this work after the lights go out tonight?

I invite everyone to have an open mind, to leave prejudice and learned attitudes at the door and to ask questions and to listen.

Today we launch Indigenous Sports Month at Newscorp where the company proudly recognises, celebrates and advocates for the achievements of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes.

Some are established champions, some are bound for Tokyo and some are just beginning and what I’ve learnt from them is the more we can connect, share and evolve together we’ll continue to build a nation we can be proud of.

After all this is our history as Australians, our culture and it deserves to be celebrated.

Originally published as‘League the original bridgebuilder between black and white’

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