The NRL said this week that its Indigenous Round theme ‘Pass Back. Move Forward.’ is intended to highlight “the importance of understanding and appreciating Indigenous history and culture in order to build a better future”.

The league announced that one focus of Round 12, endorsed by the Australian Rugby League Commission and Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council, was to encourage fans to learn about the First Nations people and culture of the land on which they live.

To this end, stadiums hosting Indigenous Round matches will include an acknowledgement to local First Nations people as part of their stadium name, and the official draw will also acknowledge Indigenous people of the land where each club and venue is based.

Australian Rugby League Commission Chair Peter V’landys said the ‘Pass Back. Move Forward.’ campaign aims to serve as a reminder to all Australians of the need to “understand history, in order to move to a more positive future”.

“This campaign reminds us all of the need for better awareness of Australia’s history to ensure a fairer future for all … Thanks to Commissioner Megan Davis, I have spent time listening to a delegation of our Indigenous players. In fact, I was very disappointed with myself for not being aware of the difficulties and challenges they endured,” he said.

“I now have a much better understanding of their issues and I was greatly inspired by their passion and commitment in having a voice for their community. I now hope for the greater community to have awareness of their history and culture.”

Australian Rugby League Commissioner, Professor Megan Davis, told NIT the NRL is “not just a corporation or business—it is a community”.

“When rugby league arrived in Australia in 1908 it was played on the reservations in Queensland and New South Wales immediately, it was a way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men from the reserves to leave the reserves … It has been part of our culture,” said the proud Cobble Cobble woman.

“Rugby league has always honoured its Aboriginal traditions, we had the first Aboriginal Australian sports captain, Artie Beetson, and that was before the Racial Discrimination Act.”

“Our culture is deeply embedded in the code. And we are a sport that transcends socio-economic classes.”

Professor Davis said the code benefitted greatly from the fact that “there are a lot of people in and around rugby league who grew up around Aboriginal people and know Aboriginal people”.

She said the league had listened to the voices of Aboriginal people.

“The Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council has driven policy … they set the agenda and we take a lot of advice from them, we also take advice from the NRL elite player group, we respond to the issues they raise. The players developed the motto—‘Pass back. Move forward.’ and the concept,” she said.

“We use the Horton Map, showing the First Nations from which the players come and where we take the names of our stadiums from … I am really proud that concept came from the player group.”

Professor Davis told NIT that in broader society, the problem of structural powerlessness continues to plague Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“The key issue is we don’t have power … There is no reform on the table, apart from the Uluru Voice to Parliament, which is going to deliver the structural power our people need,” she said.

“The governments have the money, we sign the contract. We are contractors, not equal decision-makers.”

On the subject of the 16 new Closing the Gap targets announced Thursday by the Federal Government, Professor Davis said “the world has shifted away from hard metrics in terms of measuring what works and what doesn’t work”.

“Go talk to people about what works for them. Metrics can be manipulated. The capabilities approach is about asking people if they are happy.

“The Uluru dialogues were so important because we went out to communities and asked people if they are happy—and they are not. They are unhappy with the status quo. They want change.”

“Race relations are messy [but] … we [the NRL] don’t pretend that we don’t have a problem. We have had racist incidents and will continue to do so. It is a continual process of education and engagement, and Aboriginal history and Australian history is key to that, and it is embedded in the NRL Indigenous Round theme ‘Pass Back. Move Forward.’.”

On Wednesday V’landys said he had learned a lot from Indigenous players, particularly when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players met with him late in 2019 to raise their concerns about racism and to give advice on how the NRL could improve its relationship with First Nations communities.

“I was ashamed of myself when I left that meeting … I was disappointed that I was unaware of their situation, the historical issues over our time and some of the things that they go through,” he said.

“We made a lot of mistakes with Indigenous communities. We need to acknowledge those mistakes, and we don’t want to make the same mistakes again.

“Part of this [Indigenous round] is to educate people that racism should be eradicated, it should not occur in rugby league or any part of society.”

V’landys said he wants the annual event to be about more than clubs wearing a commemorative jersey.

“From what I heard from those players, I hope this round educates others and shows the hurt that can happen when you don’t understand.”

By Giovanni Torre