The ARL Commission will decide next week whether to discontinue the practice of performing national anthems before the annual All Stars match as the code continues to listen to the views of Indigenous players.
A decade after NRL officials and club bosses backed Preston Campbell’s All Stars vision to provide Indigenous players the opportunity to represent and celebrate their culture, the game is again showing its support for First Nations people by considering the anthem proposal.
The national anthem has been a contentious issue for many in the Indigenous community since Advance Australia Fair was introduced in 1984, and their feelings were reflected by the decision of players not to sing when it was performed before last season’s All Stars match in Melbourne.
Indigenous NSW stars were stung by the backlash from some in the state after they publicly declared they would also not sing the anthem before State of Origin but the words penned in 1878 by Scotland-born Peter Dodds McCormick hurt them more.
Their stance helped thrust the issue into the public spotlight and created a platform for members of the Indigenous community to explain to the rest of the nation why they felt so strongly about Advance Australia Fair.
Campbell told NRL.com before last year’s All Stars game that he had never felt comfortable singing Advance Australia Fair, saying: "If it is played in a hall or a theatre, I stand up – but I don’t sing it. I stand up in the respect that it’s another culture’s national song."
This columnist has had the privilege of attending many of the NRL’s Indigenous player camps held in the lead-up to All Stars fixtures, including the inaugural game on the Gold Coast in 2010, and witnessed the pride players have in their history and culture.
The Unity Dance now performed before All Stars was developed by the players over a number of years at the annual NRL Indigenous camps, which helped shape the likes of Greg Inglis and Dane Gagai into leaders.
However, many of the players also spoke about the impact of the Stolen Generation on their families, and the racism their parents or grandparents had to endure before – and in some cases after – the repeal of the White Australia policy in 1966.
A 1967 referendum allowed Aborigines to be included in the national census for the first time but the national anthem – both Advance Australia Fair and God Save the Queen – has remained a constant source of discomfort for Indigenous Australians.
While the NRL has tried alternatives, such as performing Advance Australia Fair in an Indigenous language, the meaning of words remains the same and a lot of Indigenous people feel the lyrics don’t reflect them or their heritage.
"We think about our old people and the struggles they had, and when you think about the first couple of lines in the national anthem - ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free’ – for a lot of our communities they don’t feel like they are free," Campbell explained.
"We have been around for 60,000 plus years so obviously we are not so young either, and there are a couple of lines in the national anthem that has a lot of people starting to think we should change it up."
Cody Walker, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr and Ryan James are among the current NRL stars to speak out about the anthem.
"Some of the lyrics are references to ‘the free’ and you only have to look back to when my mum was born," James told reporters at a launch for the All Stars match on the Gold Coast.
"She was born indigenous to this land and she wasn’t even recognised as a person. That is not that long ago — she was born in 1960."
Players are adamant they want to foster conversation among all Australians about the anthem debate, not be seen as ramming their views down people's throats.
The anthem issue was discussed by senior players at an Indigenous leadership camp in early December and their views forwarded to a meeting of the ARL Indigenous Council.
The Indigenous Council, which includes Campbell, Indigenous All Stars coach Laurie Daley and ACT Australian of the Year Katrina Fanning as its chair, is understood to have recommended to the ARLC that the anthem not be performed at the February 22 All Stars match.
The eight commissioners are due to consider the issue at the next ARLC meeting on February 6 and will need to weigh up the feelings of the Indigenous players against the inevitable fall-out from any decision to scrap the anthem.
For the ARLC, it is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation as the game will be criticised in some quarters for dropping the anthem or have to endure a lead-up to the All Stars match dominated by questions about why players won’t sing it.
However, fears that Indigenous stars could begin taking a knee during performances of the national anthem are thought to be unfounded as the players believe they have the support of the game and the backing of ARL chairman Peter V’landys after a meeting with him late last year.
Fellow ARLC commissioner Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman, is one of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which has been publicly supported by the NRL and includes among its aims the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution.
Rugby league has a proud Indigenous history and Lionel Morgan was the first Aboriginal sportsman chosen in an Australian team when selected for the Kangaroos in 1960, while the legendary Arthur Beetson was appointed Test captain in 1973.
Rival 2015 grand final captains, Johnathan Thurston and Justin Hodges, were among the 12% of the Telstra Premiership playing ranks boasting Indigenous heritage, as do 7% of NRL staff.
Soccer great and human rights activist Craig Foster described the game as "the leader in the Indigenous space in this country" during an interview with NRL CEO Todd Greenberg for NITV’s Always Was, Always Will Be campaign for January 26 in which they discussed the anthem debate.
"What we would like to think is that we have a safe environment for our Indigenous athletes to be who they want to be and to be proud of their culture – and we have demonstrated that on a number of occasions," Greenberg said.
"I think sport has a voice and sport has a big voice. Now we are not here to tell people how to behave but sport has a platform to educate people and show them another opportunity.
"It’s not about forcing positions on people, it’s educating people and showing them through the lens of sport that this is how you can think and what you can learn."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.