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Opinion

Let the anthem play, let the players protest

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17th November, 2020
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It’s been two weeks since Peter V’landys U-turned on the idea of scrapping the national anthem from State Origin.

Predictably fierce and sometimes visceral discussion ensued, but I hope that at least some of the rawer, basest emotions surrounding such a decision have subsided to allow for a more reasoned discussion.

This is a sports website, and I’m not writing a polemic about Indigenous rights. I promise this article relates to rugby league in a meaningful way – just bear with me.

Also remember that me being a ‘bloody Pom’ should not preclude my opinion. I may have lived in Australia for only a few months, but I am applying for postgraduate political study in Australia with an emphasis on Indigenous politics – should the borders ever reopen, or if a kind Roarer is willing to accept a marriage proposal.

NSW Blues Origin 1 2019 generic

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

We’re told the reason for V’landys’s reverse ferret was a phone call from the Prime Minister, who emphasised the need for unity and a pick-me-up after an unimaginably horrendous year.

Much as I like to deride Morrison’s Adam Sandler/waterboy impersonation, I think he’s got a point.

Sport is meant to be an escape from the everyday, a chance to forget about the troubles of the world – the mortgage, the crumbling relationship, the rising price of pies. It’s also an opportunity to come together and celebrate. Origin is a national event and thus befitting of the national anthem.

There is controversy and a distaste for certain lyrics in the anthem – “young and free” is not exactly befitting of a people dating back 60,000 odd years. There’s also the wider issue of Indigenous disadvantage, continued discrimination and a lack of constitutional recognition.

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Whether or not the lyrics should be changed or how the aforementioned problems should be solved is above my paygrade, but players have the right to make their voices heard. The issue should be about changing the lyrics (or not) and improving the country so that these players feel proud enough to sing its anthem, not removing the anthem from the national psyche altogether.

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If players decide not to sing the anthem or to boycott it, that is their prerogative. The idea that it ruins the sporting spectacle is for the birds. You’re not being stopped from singing the anthem, and it’s not as if Cody Walker will fashion himself into a glorious position, find space out wide and then halt his advance to lecture Suncorp Stadium about the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

More pertinently, the anthem debate is symptomatic of the wider discussion about the Indigenous community and rugby league. The NRL likes to celebrate its commitment to inclusion, equality and all the other buzzwords. Indigenous and Pasifika players make up an increasing proportion of the player pool, and one need only compare to the controversies of the AFL for a sense of self-satisfied smugness.

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But there is a limit to such cerebral tones. If the NRL attacked racism like Dan Andrews attacks people with a cough, if club boards were representative of the communities from which they draw their support, or of money were funnelled into Indigenous programmes, the problems that caused such unbalance and wrongdoing would still exist.

That’s not to say these things shouldn’t happen, but we should be wary of the ability of rugby league or any sport to enact meaningful change by itself. It is, ironically, the inclusion of the national anthem that offers the best hope for wider public cut-through.

If the anthem were to be binned to appease insensitivities, it would bring about cacophonous outrage from the usual suspects and a fair degree of backlash from the game’s supporters. Removal from Origin pomp and ceremony would not bring about material change, only derision and ostracisation from the shouty voices of society.

But with silent protest by some of the most well-known and beloved people in the country, the utilisation of the “free” part inherent in Australian society, the freedom to protest, there exists the possibility of bringing about meaningful dialogue. If players make their voices heard by, ironically by remaining silent, it is far more likely to start a conversation than police statistics, Guardian op-eds or induced tokenism.

Indigenous campaigner Rachel Perkins spoke of a “two-way mirror” with constitutional recognition – “We acknowledge you, you acknowledge us. We become one,”

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If, despite protest, the anthem is acknowledged by Indigenous players, then the wider game must acknowledge their rightful concerns. It is only then that the process towards becoming one can truly begin.