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    Why The NRL Indigenous Round Is A Celebration Of Blak Excellence

    This weekend marks the 2020 Indigenous Round in the NRL. To some, it's just another game, to Indigenous people, it can mean so much more.

    Gamilaroi man, Connor Watson, showcases NRL Newcastle Knights Indigenous Round Jersey. / Via

    EARLIER THIS WEEK, with the launch of the 2020 NRL Indigenous Round, a series of powerful videos showcasing inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander footballers from throughout history began flooding my social media feeds. As both a proud Gamilaroi and Dunghutti girl, the daughter of a former NRL Player and a fan of the sport, this annual event has always held a special place in my heart.

    I quickly fell into the rabbit hole of watching video after video, featuring skinny-ankled blackfullas scoring impossible tries, sprinting the full length of the field and performing 'shake-a-legs' or goanna-crawls to the roar of packed stadiums. Although I am very used to the swell of pride in my chest that those visuals bring, I was a bit startled to find myself tearing up.

    Quickly, shame rose within me, I wiped my face, shaking my head and heard the voice in the back of my mind sigh: "C’mon Marlee, it’s just a game."

    Bundjalung and Yuin man and Souths Sydney player, Cody Walker, with his sons, expressing culture, shot by Grant Trouville. / Via

    Undeniably, this response was influenced by the criticism, which I’ve previously echoed, of how much we focus on the link between our culture and sports like the NRL and AFL.

    For a long time, the only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were featured on our TV screens or celebrated by a broader Australian society, were male athletes — and even then, their space in the spotlight was often reliant on their exceptional performance and, as we saw with Adam Goodes, could be stripped away in a second if they spoke up or challenged discriminatory behaviour.

    Ultimately, there are dangers in the limitations that footballers as role models put on the picture of Indigenous success — but I simply can’t separate the sport of rugby league from my childhood, nor my understanding of what it means to be a blackfulla.

    My father, Rod Silva, celebrates scoring a try in the 1998 preliminary final against the Parramatta Eels. / Via

    FOR STARTERS, it’s the profession which enabled my Dad to emerge from a childhood marred by domestic violence and poverty, to forge a 14-year-long NRL career with the Sydney Roosters and Canterbury Bulldogs. It's the profession that ultimately set the foundations for the privileged and incredible life that my sister and I have had. He’s been my example of black excellence forever.

    He showed me through his talent, hard work and commitment to giving back to community, that brilliance, compassion and generosity are key components of what it means to be Aboriginal. As a kid, I always wanted to be just like him when I grew up — and though I knew I would never do it on the footy field, my understanding of what my identity gives me in strength, resilience and power, was first shown to me by footballers.

    My dad, Rod Silva, and I at his last ever game in the NRL, before his retirement in 2001. / Via Provided

    The late great Uncle Arthur Beetson is featured in one of those videos that made me cry and I’m privileged to not only have met him a couple of times growing up, but to have received from him one of the most important pieces of wisdom I’ve ever been gifted, at an impressionable point in my adolescence.

    I was around 14, we were at the Yabun Survival Day festival in Sydney and Dad was catching up with him. There was a big crowd around him, of course, and at one point he turned to me and asked if I was still at school, I nodded and he said something to the effect of:

    “Good. You need to finish school, you get to go to school because of who came before you. When you graduate, that’s not just good for your family, it’s good for all of us and it means something to our whole community.”

    Uncle Arthur Beetson in his playing days. / Via

    I’VE NEVER FORGOTTEN that moment and, admittedly, at the time, I didn’t even understand the weight of who he was and what he represented as the first ever Indigenous person to captain an Australian sporting team — or the role model and leader he was for our people throughout his life. At the time, I’d also been struggling a lot socially at school and often didn’t want to be there, because of the ways my identity left me as something of an outcast, so his words were more poignant than he would’ve even known.

    This was the first time I really began to notice the ripple effect that my successes — or failures for that matter — would have not only on me, but all of our mob. Eventually it grew into a huge motivator in my everyday life and continues to be something I think about constantly, but particularly on the days when things feel tough or I can’t remember why I’m doing it all.

    A young person, at Dorchester School in the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre, paints the Aboriginal flag on a pairt of boots for Cultural Choice Association. / Via Provided

    IN THE LEAD UP to this year’s Indigenous Round, I was privileged to get to work alongside Cultural Choice Association for their second annual ‘Boots for Brighter Futures’ campaign.

    Founded by Newcastle Knights star and proud Gamilaroi man, Connor Watson, the non-profit is dedicated to combating the horrifying rates of Aboriginal youth suicide that devastates our community. Suicide is the second biggest killer of Aboriginal children aged 14 years and younger and the focus of the associations work was unfortunately inspired by the Watson family’s personal experience, having lost a teenage cousin to suicide in 2017.

    Jodie Watson and her son, Fletcher, stand in front of the boots painted by Aboriginal youth for 'Boots for Brighter Futures'. / Via

    The campaign sees at-risk Aboriginal youth, from a range of juvenile justice centres, hostels and out-of-home care programs, being given the opportunity to tell their stories through art and paint the boots of NRL players to be worn during the Indigenous round. The boots are then auctioned off, with the funds raised going back into the work of the association to reach more kids and impact more lives.

    This opportunity not only gives the young artists a fun and creative outlet, but it shows them how valued each of them are and provides them with an opportunity to reconnect with culture. Having seen it first hand, I can tell you, you can physically see the impact and change of demeanour this has on these participants. Especially for those who are living away from family or caught up in the justice system whose voices and stories so often go unheard or unrecognised.

    Boots painted by a young Aboriginal artist for 'Boots for brighter Futures' / Via Provided

    THE SIMPLE FACT IS, although they are not the only role models in our communities and they aren’t perfect by any means, NRL players are still incredibly influential leaders for the next generation of kids who have the power to make positive impact and long-lasting change. And the Indigenous round is a perfect moment to not only highlight the incredible work that many of them do in giving back to community, but to also push for the changes we’re all fighting for every day of the year.

    So, if you’re watching this weekend, beyond the big hits and cheers, please keep in mind, that it’s so much more than just a game.