It’s rare I choose to tune into Q+A on the ABC, but with a topic like the future of sport, this week was hard to miss.
On this week’s show there were panellists from a variety of sports covering the spectrum of sport, from players and administrators to journalists. One of the panellists was Andrew Abdo, acting CEO at the NRL.
Given global events at the moment, where thousands of people have taken to the streets to reinforce the message that black lives matter, it came as no surprise to me that one of the first questions asked of Abdo and also of Brendon Gale (CEO of the Richmond Tigers) was at what point do our major sporting codes see themselves as active participants in the structural racism that exists in this country, and take accountability and even lead us in the dismantling processes we need.
Not satisfied with the initial response from the panel, this question was followed up with a very passionate question from another member of the audience about how the NRL can police the media, in particular, when the media zeroes in on a particular player in what can seem like a relentless attack.
The question I want to ask is when is the media going to stand up and take responsibility for the role that they play in this?
The NRL can only do so much and the media is complicit and responsible for much of the narrative that the wider public consumes.
For the NRL, one of its key values is inclusivity and reinforcing to all Australians that no matter who you are, no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, age or ability, that there is a place for you in the rugby league family.
The way the NRL demonstrates its commitment to inclusivity, particularly of our Indigenous players, is an example of leadership in sport in this country.
Take the comments made by the NRL in the last year in relation to the national anthem and supporting those players who made a decision not to sing the anthem at the State of Origin last year.
Additionally, the NRL regularly consults our Indigenous players and the role of the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council is an important one.
This group played a key role in facilitating conversation earlier this year when a decision was made by the Australian Rugby League Commission to not play the Australian national anthem at the Indigenous All Stars game.
The majority of our fans are for inclusivity too.
There are racist people in this country. We see it in comments on social media, we hear it on our streets and we hear it in our stadiums.
However, on countless occasions when racist commentary has been heard in our stadiums, other members of the crowd have stood up and said this is not okay.
I recall an incident involving Greg Inglis at Panthers Stadium several years ago. The two men found to be at the centre of the incident were banned indefinitely from attending NRL games.
Can we do more? Absolutely.
Is the NRL open to listening, collaborating and continuing to work with our Indigenous players to ensure they continued to feel included and welcome in our game? I believe the answer is yes.
However, the media also play a role in this and inform how fans perceive the game.
It isn’t just a rugby league issue.
I find it staggering that until recently, a man like Alan Jones was one of the most powerful voices Aussies heard in the media. He has a history of making distasteful comments.
Yet the response from Jones, when called out on it, is a half-hearted apology from which he is always allowed to move on.
He is not the only person in the media that contributed to the state of affairs.
Last week, Channel Nine announced that Sam Newman was returning to the Sunday Footy Show with his own segment. How can we make progress when men like this are in positions of authority?
Rugby league is not immune from this.
Last year, the decision by several Indigenous players not to sing the national anthem was nation-wide news. Players have not been singing the anthem for decades, but this issue came to the fore when a journalist noticed that some players were not singing in Game 1 and asked why?
I have no problem with this. It gave us all an opportunity to listen and understand and perhaps learn something about why our national anthem does not speak to all who live in this country.
The players did not bring it up. They did not make a big deal about it. They did so silently and respectfully.
Yet in the weeks that followed, I saw countless articles accusing these players of being prima donnas who didn’t respect this country.
Similarly, earlier this year when the NRL made a decision to feature Latrell Mitchell in the ad for the new season, somehow Mitchell standing in the ocean draped in an Aboriginal flag was divisive and political.
Mitchell has been one of the most reported-on players in the media this year.
The media seem obsessed with his contract negotiations, his weight on return to pre-season and his learning of the fullback position. Is this simply coincidence?
Our sports are leaders and can be powerful agents of change.
However, the media in this country certainly has a role to play.
We need to demand better of our media agencies and question why some are given a greater platform than others, particularly when those people seem at odds with the values like inclusivity, which so many of our sports hold so dear.