While rugby league, in particular the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia, have several initiatives in place to counteract racism, it is still very much alive in the sport.
From an outside perspective we don’t see the depths of racism and/or colonial themes in rugby league; but when digging a little deeper, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that today’s game that so many people follow is still the subject of colonialism.
In today’s modern game of rugby league, racism isn’t seen all that much in the public sphere. While racism in the sport is somewhat covered by the media, the coverage only seems to cover abuse toward players by fans, and how the sport’s governing bodies are dealing with these issues. Although, issues of racism and colonial themes within that governing body are hardly ever put under the microscope, perhaps due to the fact that the governing body is highly populated by white men.
“The game is seen as a white man’s game, but this is only because it is defined by white men”, (Carrington & McDonald 2001, p. 79).
While some areas of the sport are becoming more knowledgeable about Indigenous culture, there is still a gap; a gap that could be compared to that of othering.
Indigenous players in the rugby league arena are still considered ‘others’ despite the fact that, in most cases, racism is now commonly frowned upon by the general public. However, the racism and colonialism in rugby league is covert and most people go on without noticing it.
In spite of the fact that some rugby league organisations, such as the NRL, express their willingness to support Indigenous players when it comes to acts of racism, there are several factors that they fail to account for. While acknowledging Aboriginal culture once a weekend out of the entire season – Indigenous Round – the NRL still fail to identify their own pitfalls when it comes to cultural appreciation, and far too often misplace it with cultural appropriation – this could be seen during the Australian Kangaroo’s World Cup Tour in 2010, when a non-Indigenous man took to the centre of the group of Australian players and performed an Aboriginal war cry before the commencement of a match against England; this act proving to be more tokenistic than respectful.
“In order to acknowledge our Indigenous players in a more meaningful way, we need more consistency and less tokenism; we need something that is led by the Indigenous players that is less palatable for non-Indigenous people and more focussed on taking pride in culture”, (Rae 2010).
Moral panic and the folk devil
Although the National Rugby League have anti-racism initiatives in place to protect players from all different ethnicities against racism from fans, it does not stop the colonial atmosphere that takes place when an Indigenous player expresses themselves on and off of the playing field. There have been many instances where an Indigenous cultural act has been taken the wrong way and turned into a race war; leaving a divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. While not during a rugby league match, an example of this would be a post-goal celebration performed by Australian Football League (AFL) player Adam Goodes – a cultural celebrational act which led to a mass of negativity from fans and supporters.
While the response that came from supporters of the game was definitely that of racism, many people concluded that this act of racism was due to confusion and a lack of knowledge on Indigenous culture –
“Certainly the serial booing of Goodes is racist and unjustifiable. The probability that most of the idiots doing it don’t have much idea why doesn’t excuse them” (Bradley 2015).
Similar to that of Goodes, NRL players too have been known to incorporate Indigenous culture into their post-try celebrations – players such as Latrell Mitchell who represents a kangaroo in his celebrations, and Greg Inglis who resembled a goanna in his. While these post celebrations have not been the subject of racism shouted from the stands (like Adam Goodes’ incident), they have still been subjected to racial outbursts on social media, leading to an outcry from Indigenous rugby league players wanting the racism to come to an end.
The response from fans and supporters in relation to post-try and/or goal celebrations performed by Indigenous players in rugby league, as well as in the AFL code, depicts Indigenous players as folk devils.
Amanda Rohloff states in ‘Shifting the focus? Moral panics as civilising and decivilizing processes’, that moral panics are usually the result of a ‘weakening’.
“However, with moral panics, there need not be an actual weakening, only a perceived weakening. This could include the perception that governmental regulations, and the enforcement of those regulations, are failing to control a particular perceived problem; or, conversely, that individuals are failing to regulate their own behaviour and therefore there is a need for a stronger external force (from either within or outside ‘the state’) to ‘control’ these ‘uncontrollable’ deviants” (Rohloff 2011, p. 5).
Positional segregation and black magic
According to Chris Hallinan rugby league is highly overpopulated by Indigenous participants due to its working-class status –
“Rugby league is, on the other hand, associated with working class… Perhaps for this reason then, Aborigines participate in over-representative numbers”, (Hallinan 1991, p. 73).
Hallinan also examines the positions on the field in which Indigenous players are more likely to play, suggesting that wing and centre positions are a more likely fit due to these positions having less involvement in the game.
“It was found that the most likely position to be played by an Aborigines as one which supports the population stereotype. As well, analysis of match videotapes and tackle counts revealed that Aboriginal positions had the least involvement of any field playing position. These results lend support to the notion that positional segregation may be likely in team sports for all Anglocentric societies”, (Hallinan 1991, p. 69).
When looking at today’s modern game of rugby league, again looking at the NRL, it can be seen that Indigenous players are still filling spaces on the wings and in the centres – examples of this is Latrell Mitchell (Sydney Roosters Winger), Josh Addo-Carr (Melbourne Storm Winger), and James Roberts (South Sydney Rabbitohs Centre); all Indigenous players in the NRL.
While the wing and centre positions have the least amount of involvement in the game, they also require quick players to fill them, therefore meaning that while ‘positional segregation’ may be playing a part in our modern game, stereotypes are too being incorporated. A stereotype often attached to Indigenous athletes is that they have immense speed – which links into the positioning of Indigenous players playing on the wing and/or in the centres. The stereotypes based on the abilities of Indigenous participants then leads into the situation of ‘black magic’.
On several occasions rugby league commentators, as well as others linked to the rugby league arena, have been heard mentioning ‘black magic’ when referring to an Indigenous players ability – whereas on the other hand, when speaking of a non-Indigenous player, the words “hard work”, “determination” and “dedication” are often heard.
The idea that Indigenous players are successful in the sport due to some form of cultural magic, in comparison to the “hard work” of their non-Indigenous counterparts adds to the divide, and colonial themes, that still exist in the game.
“There’s this perception that all Indigenous people have some sort of magical flair that helps them with their ability to play” (Gurruwiwi 2018).
“It can put an unnecessary pressure on Indigenous players to be ‘magical’… Not every Indigenous player plays the same way. But I think people can have a perception that every indigenous player will be like that” (Gurruwiwi 2018).
When playing the sport of rugby league in Australia, many players may struggle with drawing a line between representing their culture as well as representing the country, and ‘unitedness’ of today’s Australia.
Being in the public eye, rugby league players are role models for fans and supporters, making it harder for Indigenous players to take a stand for their culture without consequence. An example of this in the NRL is the refusal by Indigenous players to sing the National Anthem during the State of Origin fixtures – this refusal was followed by several Indigenous players being replaced by other players in the following State of Origin matches.
Former NRL player, Timana Tahu, stated that he believed the players’ refusal to conform and sing the National Anthem before the fixture was the reasoning behind their dismissal from the New South Wales Blues side in the following game.
“Even though there are selectors, the politics come into it and I feel like some old boys might have come in and shared their two cents with the coach. Did it cost some of them their positions in the team? I think yes and no” (Rayson 2019).
Carrington and McDonald say,
“… Asian and black people not only have to face tacit and overt racism and assumptions about the game that are themselves based on definitions of white masculinity, they also have to make compromises over their own identity”, (Carrington & McDonald 2001, p. 79 & 80).
Compromises over identity can be seen in today’s game when Indigenous players are somewhat forced to play in an all-Australian side as there is no option that will allow for them to play for their culture. In the 2019 World Cup 9s an Indigenous side was not created, this therefore meant that if the Indigenous players in the sport wanted to represent themselves and their families, then they would have to play in the Australian side. Again, refusing to sing the National Anthem, Indigenous players were put under the microscope and made to question their loyalty to both their culture and the non-Indigenous players they played with, as well as modern-day Australia as a whole.
A fantasy of ‘togetherness’
Although colonial themes still exist in rugby league, it is far too often portrayed as ‘togetherness’. This can be seen when Indigenous players play alongside non-Indigenous players to represent Australia. While there is no other option for Indigenous players, as an Indigenous side is not included at a representative level, the sport’s governing body, as well as the media, portray this as somewhat of a union between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, not only on, but also off of the field – this helping to strengthen the image of the initiatives that the NRL have in place to combat racism and to promote the organisations image; when in retrospect it is merely just a façade for the unavailability of options for Indigenous players, such as that of an Indigenous squad at a representative level.
While rugby league appears to be inclusive of Indigenous participants, and in some ways is, there are still many colonial themes that are ongoing in the sport. From an outside perspective it can be difficult to notice the colonial undertones in today’s modern game, they are, however, still ongoing. Positional segregation, the term ‘black magic’ and ‘othering’ are ongoing themes in rugby league today – all of which represent racism and colonialism.
- Bradley, M 2015, ‘Goodes’ war dance reveals our moral confusion’, ABC News, 30 July, viewed 29 September 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-30/bradley-goodes-war-dance-reveals-our-moral-confusion/6657960
- Carrington, B & McDonald, I, 2001, Conclusion: redefining the game, ‘Race’, Sport and British Society, p. 79.
- Carroll, S 2019, ‘Timana Tahu to be sacked by NSWRL over anthem comments’, Zero Tackle, 20 June, viewed 4 September, https://www.zerotackle.com/timana-tahu-to-be-sacked-by-nswrl-over-anthem-comments-45437/
- Hallinan, C 1991, ‘Aborigines and Positional Segregation in Australian Rugby League’, p. 70.
- Jarvie, G 1991, ‘Sport, Racism and ethnicity’, p. 87.
- Nelson, A 2009, ‘Sport, Physical Activity and Urban Indigenous Young People’, Issue 2, p. 101.
- Rae, S 2017, ‘The Kangaroos World Cup War Cry: Tradition or Token?’, NITV, weblog post, 31 October, viewed 4 September 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/10/30/kangaroos-world-cup-war-cry-tradition-or-token
- Rohloff, A 2011, ‘Shifting the focus? Moral panics as civilizing and decivilizing processes’, p. 5.
- Webster, A 2019, ‘NSW star Blake Ferguson latest victim of vile racist attack’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August, viewed 6 September 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/sport/nrl/nsw-star-blake-ferguson-latest-victim-of-vile-racist-attack-20190813-p52grr.html
- Lanyon, J 2018, ‘Why it’s time to drop the ‘M’ word when referring to our favourite Indigenous athletes’, Roar, [Gurruwiwi quote], 5 April, viewed 2 October 2019, https://www.theroar.com.au/2018/04/06/reviewwhy-time-drop-m-word-referring-favourite-indigenous-athletes/
- Rayson, Z 2019, ‘Former Blues star Timana Tahu faces NSWRL axe over controversial anthem claim’, Fox Sports, 20 June 2019, viewed 3 September 2019, https://www.foxsports.com.au/nrl/state-of-origin/tahu-faces-nswrl-axe-over-controversial-anthem-claim/news-story/b5d33a3619937f9d0071e7233d05c73b