As AFL apologies to Adam Goodes the NRL works quietly on Indigenous excellence

Rugby league has always been a Koori sport but the AFL has always been better at using its false boast as a lever to gain public funding.

Compare the big noise AFL makes about support for First Nations people to the NRL reaction when Indigenous superstars refused to sing the national anthem at the State of Origin match. No big deal was made, aware it would be a breach of rugby league’s social contract with its Aboriginal players.


Consider the differences between the codes with the Clontarf Foundation, an organisation which uses sport to encourage young Aboriginal kids to attend school, funded a third each by state and federal governments and corporations.

The program was begun by Gerard Neesham, a teacher, shortly after he was sacked as inaugural coach of the Fremantle Dockers. It became so successful in Western Australia, the AFL sought to take it over and badge it as their own. However, Neesham knew the project would never gain traction in NSW where rugby league was dominant. He sought the assistance of the NSWRL, which cooperated without demanding acknowledgement.

Nor has the NSWRL interfered with the annual Koori knockout, a 50-year-old competition held in NSW and run exclusively by Indigenous leaders.

While both the AFL and NRL stage an annual Indigenous round in their respective competitions, rugby league can demonstrate commitment where it counts: appointing Indigenous people to leadership positions.

Rugby league legend Arthur Beetson, who passed away in 2011.Credit:Darren Pateman

It was the first football code in Australia to select an Aboriginal player in a national team when Lionel Morgan became a Kangaroo in 1960, eight years before he was counted in the population.
Arthur Beetson was appointed Australian captain five years after the constitutional change.

Until last year, the opposing coaches of the code’s jewel, State of Origin, were Indigenous: NSW’s Laurie Daley and Queensland’s Mal Meninga.

Two Aboriginal captains led their teams in the NRL grand final in 2015 when Justin Hodges’ Broncos were defeated by Johnathan Thurston’s Cowboys. On that same day the two captains of the curtain raiser game were Aboriginal.


Thurston, awarded an AM on Monday, is a four-time winner of the Dally M medal.

When the ARL Commission was inaugurated, an Indigenous man, Dr Chris Sarra, was appointed.
The ARL Indigenous Council was established to provide strategic advice to the NRL leadership team and the board.

Reconciliation week showed how far the game has come on the advancement of Indigenous participation. The NRL was the first national sporting organisation to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan in 2008 and followed up last year, being the first to sign an Elevate RAP.

In 2009, the NRL joined Oxfam to deliver the Close the Gap campaign to raise awareness of health inequality and the gap in life expectancy. In 2010, the All Stars fixture began at a time more than half the national team was Indigenous.

Recently, the NRL signed up to the RECOGNISE campaign and was an inaugural supporter of the Uluru Statement From the Heart.


The code has backed its focus on the advancement and recognition of Indigenous Australia’s contribution to the game by its own employment practices.

A number of years ago the NRL set about employing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. Now, 51 people or close to eight per cent of its workforce are Indigenous, while 12 per cent of players are Indigenous.

With rugby league, the debate isn’t about Indigenous disadvantage but Indigenous excellence.

Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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