Dear fellow rugby league fans, I am so excited about the 2020 season starting.
I have missed the footy so much it has hurt. However, before we get started I felt the need to appeal to many of you to embrace change in a positive way.
I know a lot of you are scared, confused and a bit angry about some of the things you are seeing promoted and celebrated by the game we love. Lots of you are worried that the game is changing and that – maybe – it’s not taking you with it.
The National Rugby League’s 2020 advertisement has created quite a stir in this regard.
However, all the NRL is doing is trying to make sure that everyone knows that they are wanted and will be included in our game. No matter who you are, what your age, where you’re from, whatever your faith, skin colour, who you love, or whatever reason there may be for people to be or feel excluded: the NRL wants and values your involvement, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.
That is a fantastic message.
Surely we all want everyone who loves rugby league like we do to feel included and wanted in our herd. This year the NRL has included in their imagery people entrenched in our game who can often feel marginalised: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and LGBTQI people.
But please let me assure you that you and your love and support for the game is still wanted and needed – now more than ever.
And that is because your support is vital in making the really important messages in the NRL’s advertisement become entrenched and taken for granted in our game. The NRL aren’t saying all of those people are important to our beloved game and that everyone else isn’t. They are just saying that they are also important and wanted in and around our game.
I’ve got lots of issues with the way that the NRL is being run, but on this theme they are bang on the money and have no more ardent supporter than me.
Why? Because when I first came to the game it was different to today.
A lot different. And it has changed so much for the better since then because of efforts like this.
I clearly remember those winter Sunday afternoons in the early ’80s I spent on the gravel hill overlooking Seiffert Oval. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, rough and drunk. They were highly vocal and their language was extremely colourful. It was not a place where you would want to take a young family at all.
As the afternoon wore on the old toilet cans that lined the back fence would overflow, the effluent would run down the hill and the whole place would stink. To further compound that atmosphere, the continued heavy intake of alcohol usually meant that quite a number of physical altercations would break out.
It was hardcore ugly, a sort of confronting and gross danger that only the seediest of carnival side show alleys could match.
And there was I – this kid from middle-class, white-bread Canberra, raised by academic parents.
But I loved the rugby league. I was transfixed. I was addicted.
However, the atmosphere wasn’t at all marketable to a wider population. If my mother had known what I was going to be in among all those Sundays when I headed off on the bus I doubt she would have let me go.
However, rugby league was undergoing big changes at that very moment. Jim Comans was changing the thug image of rugby league with his huge suspensions for Bob Cooper, Steve Kneen and Les Boyd. As well, Ken Arthurson came to the helm of the NSWRL in 1983 and – along with John Quayle – set about trying to build the code’s brand and appeal.
By 1989 they rolled out Tina Turner singing ‘What you get is what you see’ for the NSWRL’s marketing pitch to a broader market, especially women, who featured heavily in the imagery.
That great momentum was further capitalised on the following year when her ‘Simply the best’ NSWRL ad became a massive marketing success.
Women, who had practically no presence on that Seiffert Oval gravel and were not really wanted or seen as necessary, were now attending the games in unprecedented numbers. With them came families in seriously big numbers. The game had a mass appeal like never before. My mother, an immigrant from the USA with little idea of sport of any kind, has been a Raiders member since 1991.
If you’d asked those pissed idiots on that gravel hill in 1982 if they thought attracting women and families to rugby league was a priority, most of them would have said things along the lines of “There’s nothing wrong with the way it is now”, “Just focus on the football and stop pandering to minorities” and “I’ve got nothing against women, but…”
We take it for granted now, but there was a time when women didn’t have very much of a place in our game at all.
Over the last four decades I’ve watched the rugby league experience gentrify massively. The old piss cans are long gone. Dry and family areas are at every ground, along with a much higher level of security that has seen intoxication and behaviour at the games become more manageable and reasonable. The acceptable standards of our society have changed and the NRL has changed with them.
These changes have seen the game-day experience become one that is enjoyable for a far wider section of the public. The game now draws fans from all sorts and all walks.
And it is great. And it came about because people with vision made it happen. While I’ve had lots of issues with Todd Greenberg and his crew, on this he is displaying both great leadership and vision.
However, there are still those who are confronted by change. There always will be. It usually isn’t because they are nasty or stupid – although those people exist too. It’s usually because they are scared and feel out of place when those changes happen. But change – along with death and taxes – is inevitable.
In the early 1970s my parents and their friends played all us kids music. Included in that was Rolf Harris’ ‘Tie me kangaroo down, sport’.
What a hilarious song, right? Even though it came out in 1957, it was a big hit and everyone knew it and sang it still around the time of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
The song contained language that denigrated Indigenous people. There is no way in hell that you could possibly broadcast that sentiment now, and rightly so. I’m horrified I was ever party to those lyrics being played. Can you imagine how hearing those words would have hurt Indigenous Australians?
We’ve come a long way since then, but we’ve still got a way to go in regards to reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the rest of us. There are still people in and around our game vilifying Indigenous Australians.
So, especially after the grief he’s copped over the last year, for the NRL to celebrate Latrell Mitchell – a indisputably superb NRL player – draped in the Indigenous flag, shows fantastic leadership by Todd Greenberg and his team.
Indigenous Australians are an ornament of our great game and always have been. Making sure they feel included, safe and wanted must be a priority for all of us. That includes understanding how Indigenous Australians have issues with a national anthem that claims our country to be “young and free” when there is masses of accepted evidence that Indigenous Australians have been on this great southern land for tens of thousands of years.
Further, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are almost 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous men and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 21.2 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women. You can understand that the “free” bit might offend too. Perhaps we should be looking to adjust the words – again, it has been done before – to make sure everyone feels included?
People going off about Mitchell draping himself in the Aboriginal flag need to understand that it is in fact an officially proclaimed flag of Australia. And people can drape themselves in anything they identify with: the Southern Cross, the Australian flag, or their teams colours. What the hell is wrong with being proud of something?
As for the objections to the images of State of Origin players Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki kissing post game, I can understand how people might feel a bit confronted by that. However, we must establish in our culture that same-sex relationships are normal and not make people feel bad for whom they love. Gay players, officials and fans are all through our game. They need to know they are wanted, accepted and that they belong. That they are safe and don’t need to hide or to be ashamed.
Because – if for no other reason – that’s the kind of treatment that we all want for ourselves.
So good on Todd Greenberg and his crew for so bravely and righteously representing all my great friends who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and all my people who are gay. Thank you for leading so bravely.
And to those of you who are against those messages, I encourage you to cross over and stand with us. It is so much better than standing on the piss-soaked gravel hill.