We Don’t Want ‘Indigenous Rounds’, We Want Accountability For Racism In Sports

If sports codes want to “reconcile” they need to be looking at where they let down their Indigenous players and fans. No amount of dot dot jerseys and use of the word "deadly" will make up for the standard of racism they allow and accept.

Indigenous round

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It’s no secret that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are sceptical of corporate efforts during Reconciliation Week. When Indigenous people don’t matter to an organisation any other time of the year aside from the assigned ‘Blak days’, it’s hard to get behind their tea cakes and morning teas, and believe that they suddenly care.

In the world of sports, the tea cakes and morning teas come in the form of Aboriginal artwork printed on jerseys and ‘Indigenous rounds’, where the sports celebrate the Indigenous players and their heritage. While this works beautifully in the NRL’s All Stars game, unfortunately, Indigenous Rounds themselves do little to deter racism in sports from both players and fans.

Indigenous Round is celebrated in the NRL, AFL and Super Netball. Super Rugby doesn’t have an Indigenous Round, but they do wear special jerseys for National Reconciliation Week — the same week that AFL and NRL have their rounds.

The issue is that these rounds and their deadly jerseys give the illusion that to these corporations Indigenous peoples and cultures matter. While it’s fun and important to celebrate the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in sport, these sports and their organisations matter more to us than we do to them.

It also seems that the sports themselves do nothing to use their platform to educate their fans. Every year at All Star games there are comments online of “Where is the white team?” and “when is Caucasian round”. If these sports are going to hold these rounds and have these events they should continuously put in the work to ensure their fans know why.

Benching Jemma Mimi

Let’s look to last year’s Indigenous Round in the Super Netball for a prime example. Jemma Mimi is a proud Wakka Wakka woman who plays for the Queensland Firebirds. Until recently, she was the only Indigenous player in the Super Netball. Last year, her team was victorious in a round that was supposed to celebrate her peoples — what should have been an exciting time for her. But it wasn’t.

Mimi was benched for the entire game despite being the player who was the most involved in promo for the round — the laborious results of being the only Indigenous person in the code. After an unfair workload was placed on Mimi to promote the round, and all eyes were glued to her as the only Indigenous person in the sport, she had to sit from the bench and watch her team nab a victory that she wasn’t allowed to partake in. All Mimi’s hard work as a sports person and as a Wakka Wakka woman diminished and ignored.

This year, fans took to the Firebird’s Instagram post announcing their game dress, begging for Jemma to take to the court in the upcoming Indigenous Round and avoid a repeat of last year’s hurtful incident.

AFL And Racism

In some ways however, Mimi is lucky when compared to other sports with Indigenous Rounds. It’s no secret the AFL has been a brewing pot of racism, from Nicky Winmar receiving racial abuse at Victoria Park, to former Adelaide recruitment manager Matthew Rendell suggesting that clubs should only recruit Aboriginal players that have ‘one white parent’, to everything that Adam Goodes was put through — AFL has made it clear that there is no space for Blak people in the game.

AFL owes its entire existence to Blak people. The national game we see today is a transformation of Marn Grook, a game that was played by mobs throughout Victoria and New South Wales. AFL is a game that mob have loved pre-colonisation, so it hurts that the AFL system and its fans don’t love them back. That club owners compare players to King Kong on national radio, players are called every variant of prime ape and even have bananas thrown at them. Goodes shouldn’t have had to retire quietly as he did in order to avoid any more confrontation. Players should be allowed to be proud and fearless in their culture without every racial slur thrown at them from every direction. Players should be allowed to celebrate their culture on the national stage without stadiums of “fans” booing them.

Proud And Fearless

Proud and fearless in their culture is something a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander NRL players exhibit. Such strength and pride that I sometimes genuinely tear up watching them. Yet of course, no matter how hard they try, how good they play, or how deadly they are in Indigenous round, racism is lurking around the corner. Game legend Greg Inglis was on the receiving end of it his entire career, with online trolls even racially vilifying his child. Similarly, Johnathan Thurston’s daughter sparked online vitriol for simply being photographed with a black baby doll.

In 2016’s Indigenous Round, Dane Gagai was on the receiving end of a racial attack from an NRL fan. Seen crying after a loss, Gagai was called a “sooky black c**t”. The reason for Gagai’s post game tears were actually tied to a recent family loss rather than the game, but at the end of the day players shouldn’t receive hate for showing emotions and that hate especially shouldn’t be race based — there is literally no need for it.

Last year, despite Black Lives Matter being prominent in the headlines, Titan’s Tyrone Peachey was racially vilified by a player mid-game. Knight’s player Mitch Barnett called Peachey a ‘Black C**t’ during a game. Peachey immediately called it out and brought it to the attention of the ref, who affirmed he could not do anything unless Peachey put in an official complaint then and there. In both of these incidents NRL said they were working with the players and the clubs, looking into and referring both incidents to the Integrity Unit but in the end, nothing happened. NRL said there was insufficient evidence to support either Peachey or Barnett’s side of events and so, nothing happened.

Other NRL incidents have seen fans punished for their actions, with eight fans removed from a game after hurling abuse at Penrith Panthers player and Wiradjuri man Brent Naden. Post Match, Naden’s coach Ivan Cleary stated that it wasn’t the first time Naden had heard such abuse.

Rabbitohs player and Biripi and Wiradjuri man Latrell Mitchell is constantly receiving online racism, with his Instagram comments having to be constantly monitored. Even NRL’s official All-Stars post that features Mitchell has its comments turned off, with their post featuring recent Dally M Winner and Wiradjuri man Jack Wighton’s also having to disable comments.

This does endless harm to the sport, the players and fans like myself who have to watch players they love and identify with get torn down over something we can’t change.

If sports codes want to “reconcile” they need to be looking at where they let down their Indigenous players and fans. No amount of dot dot jerseys and use of the word “deadly” will make up for the standard of racism they allow and accept.

Bizzi Lavelle is a Wakka Wakka woman living on Quandamooka country. She is an educator, performer and writer who specialises in sociology, gender and sexuality and race based works.