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What January 26 meant to AFL clubs, the NRL, Latrell Mitchell and his Souths

Andrew Mathieson -

The conscience of several AFL clubs indicated a willingness to support a change to the date of Australia Day following a number of sweeping online statements.

The progressive stance of all 18 teams acknowledging the hurt of the date, stood out in sheer contrast to the silence from their NRL counterparts on Friday, either through club websites, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram.

South Sydney, with its rich cultural connections to the local Redfern area and to First Nations mobs on the east coast of Australia, was the only rugby league club that seemed to acknowledge the January 26 date and the hurt of generations of Aboriginal people.

"At the Rabbitohs, we understand that day is a day Australians pause to reflect upon and celebrate the unique qualities of our nation. For many, it is also a painful and a difficult day," South Sydney wrote online last Friday.

"Today, the Rabbitohs join in acknowledging the many and varied cultures that make up our modern Australian nation. At the same time, we pay special tribute to our Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, and honour them as custodians of the oldest living culture on the planet."

Souths signed off with the customary: "Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land".

The club's favourite son, Latrell Mitchell, was the most significant contributor, but one of the very few in the NRL on social media.

"Thinking of my people today! There's a reason the windscreen is bigger than the rear view mirror. Keep looking forward," Mitchell posted on his Instagram story.

The NRL did post to recognise the date, but it is not clear whether powerbrokers of the game wrote on behalf of their clubs and whether it had sent out a memo instructing the 17 teams not to post online so to deliver uniformity on the controversial topic.

"The NRL acknowledges today represents a painful and sorrow day for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples," the NRL statement read.

"We pay tribute to the resilience and the enormous contribution our Aboriginal and Torres Strait brothers and sisters make to our nation and the greatest game of all."

After the National Indigenous Times had reported that Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs were the first clubs to call for a change of date the day before Australia Day celebrations, the 16 other clubs all made online statements about January 26.

Five clubs – including Essendon, Fremantle, and Geelong – through their boards, staff and players expressly endorse that it was no longer acceptable to recognise a national holiday on a date symbolically representing colonisation, displacement, and genocide towards the oldest continuous culture on earth.

A number of the other 13 clubs skirted around the hot topic of dumping Australia Day, but most of them were highly supportive of a push for reconciliation.

Adelaide stated it respected people's "right to choose" to celebrate January 26 or not.

The statement reflected on how the Australia Day holiday triggers "various emotions" and perspectives in society, but also expressed "solidarity with First Nations peoples".

"We will continue to educate ourselves, listen, and learn from First Nations peoples and do better," the club said.

Brisbane said all involved at the Lions on January 26 "stand alongside our First Nations Elders, brothers, sisters and Community".

"And as a footy club, we are committed to continuing our journey to understand the shared history of our country," the club statement said.

Carlton was keen to reference that "out of respect" the Blues have a responsibility to recognise the hurt and mourning of many Indigenous people.

"We support everyone's right to choose how they reflect on the (Australia) day, while encouraging self-education and, respectful and inclusive discussion, to allow us to educate and learn from one another," the club wrote.

Collingwood, who have long fought against a stigma of racism against Indigenous rivals, put up its statement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, but excluding the Australian flag.

For more than two decades, the club's emblem has contained the Australian flag in addition to a black and white team flag.

"To our First Nations players, staff, supporters, and their families and also friends, we stand side by side with you on January 26 and understand the feelings, which come with this date for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities across the country," the Magpies statement read.

"We remain committed to a journey of reconciliation through continuous learning, deep listening and action."

Essendon, a club with a long history of supporting Aboriginal communities, implied it supported a date change in which, "we looked forward to a time where all Australians can celebrate our nation on a day that brings everyone together".

"We stand united in our commitment to meaningful reconciliation," the club wrote, "and to walk alongside First Nations peoples on the path to a unified Australia with justice and equity for all".

Geelong, who has backed to help create a "First Nations hub", a first nationally of its kind, reflected on January 26 over several pages of the club website.

"We stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples and we listen deeply and reflect," a part of the club statement said.

"We recognise this day is also a day that marks citizenship for new Australians.

"We are committed to moving forward with an openness and togetherness for our shared history, our spirit and people, on a date that represents all Australians."

Gold Coast felt the day was an appropriate time to "reflect, educate and move forward as one".

The club was also asking that Australians "to educate themselves on the significance of the date".

"We have a responsibility to recognise the history of our nation, bring people together in the present and move forward into a more reconciled future," the club statement said.

Greater Western Sydney said the club was willing to play a part towards "Australia's reconciliation journey".

"We recognise today as a day of reflection, truth-telling, and also an opportunity for healing," the Giants statement read.

Hawthorn expressed it was committed to reconciliation while noting that Australia Day evokes "many different emotions and perspectives".

The club had recently been cleared of any wrongdoing by the AFL that occurred for nearly a decade over claims from three former First Nations players and their families.

But club president Andrew Gowers is still endeavouring to negotiate with all of the parties for financial compensation caused by a number of alleged incidents.

Melbourne, who rebranded its name Naarm during the Indigenous Sir Douglas Nicholls Round, is committed to continue learning and on education.

"We encourage all to join us on this journey as we strive towards a reconciled nation," the club said in its statement.

"Today marks a day of pain and loss for many of Australia's First Nations Peoples.

"As a club, we respectfully acknowledge this and celebrate the strength and survival of the world's oldest living cultures."

North Melbourne's position on Australia Day had followed an "extensive consultation with First Nations players and club staff".

"We will be stronger together when we can celebrate the history of a country, we call home on a date that unites us," the statement included.

The club also switched off the comments section on posts to "ensure the conversation remains respectful".

Richmond asked its fans to "take the time to question, listen and understand the truth of our past" in recognising more than 65,000 years of First Nations culture.

"Collectively, our voices can deliver the change that unite this great country," the club further added.

Sydney used the day to say it is "committed to reconciliation through building positive relationships".

But the Swans added and accepted the range of emotions on the controversial date will differ between people.

"For some, it's a day of national pride. For our First Nations people, it's a day of pain and sorrow," the club said.

West Coast recognised that "some will want to acknowledge and celebrate (Australia Day)".

But the club said for many First Nations people, recognising Australia Day has proven to be "divisive and distressing day that evokes pain, sorrow, and sadness".

"We encourage truth-telling, respectful discussion, deep listening, learning, reflection and we look forward to a future where everyone of all backgrounds and cultures can come together proudly to celebrate our nation's shared history," the club said.

Two of the clubs with the larger representation of Indigenous players in the AFL went to different and unique lengths to educate the culture of several of its players on the date.

Fremantle participated in information sessions at the club during the week, engaging on the implications of Australia Day for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in addition to a statement.

Players and staff of the Dockers were given the choice to "attend work" in exchange of an "alternate" day of leave.

St Kilda took to social media with a video calling for reconciliation that included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous players participating in the production.

Noongar man and AFL veteran, Bradley Hill, reiterated: "For Indigenous Australians, January 26 is a day of mourning, not celebration", before Marcus Windhager, who's a member of the Tasmanian Ben Lomond Tribe of the Plangermaireener Nation, added: "It represents the displacement of families, and the loss of country and identity at the hands of colonisation".

Captain Jack Steele continued the narrative by saying, "To achieve true reconciliation, we need to listen, learn, and understand", before their West Australian recruit Lance Collard, a Noongar man, finished the video with, "acknowledging the past allows us to work towards a more inclusive future".


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