The Australian Rugby League Commission has shown leadership by deciding not to play the Australian national anthem before the All Stars fixtures.
While some supported this act of leadership, many are in opposition.
And ahead of the games this weekend, I want to understand this opposition.
This issue arose during the same fixture last year, when Indigenous All Stars captain Cody Walker stood silent as ‘Advance Australia Fair’ played.
Then, leading into the State of Origin series, several players confirmed they would not sing, as they did not feel that the song represented them.
The players did not try to draw attention to themselves, they were merely responding to questions from the media.
Some might say that some sections of the media have used this issue to generate negative publicity about certain players. But additionally, perhaps it’s only because the media notices that some of the players weren’t singing the anthem that we have the opportunity as a game to have a real conversation.
For former Australian Jillaroo Katrina Fanning, the way some of the media have reported on this issue suggests that they are trying to use this issue as “to try and keep our athletes in their place and to not speak about anything but football”.
“That is a really shallow view and one that is decades behind where most of the game is at,” the member of the NRL Indigenous Council says.
“What relevance does the national anthem have to this exhibition game? This game is an opportunity for cultural expression as much as football expression.”
For me, the anthem has no relevance to this match, whether you take the time to understand the feelings many Indigenous Australians share about the words.
This fixture does not feature an Australian national team and while there may be protocol about what needs to happen once the national anthem is played, there is little about when it needs to be played.
Rugby league not only celebrates the contribution of Indigenous players, but additionally works with these players to make sure that they are supported.
Fans also celebrate these wonderful athletes, like Preston Campbell, Latrell Mitchell and Greg Inglis.
Inglis’ ‘goanna’ post-try celebration was iconic, and the way it was received is a credit to our game and the diversity that is such a key part of it.
But here’s the catch.
We can’t pick and choose when we want to celebrate our athletes’ heritage and culture. We can’t applaud the ‘goanna’ and then be completely dismissive when Indigenous athletes try to explain to us why the national anthem is a source of angst.
Fanning makes the point succinctly:
“Our players are Aboriginal on and off the field. They have the right to speak on topics other than football and they inspire people to do more than just play football.”
Let’s take this opportunity to grow and learn. To listen and understand.
To hear our players when they explain why the national anthem does not represent them and, in particular, the original words to the song which had strong links to the White Australia policy and the concept of Terra Nullius.
“I want an anthem that brings us together with a great sense of pride about who we are and what’s in our future. This doesn’t do it for me. This is looking backward, not forward,” Fanning says.
I want the same thing too.
Rugby league is a leader when it comes to social change, as evidenced by the support given to the introduction of same-sex marriage and that moment when Macklemore sang ‘Same Love’ at the NRL grand final.
Let the absence of the anthem be another opportunity for the game to show leadership.