As Netball Australia’s Indigenous Round kicked off in Far North Queensland last week, calls for the league to start “walking the walk” on Indigenous inclusivity rang loud and clear.

It was the third annual Suncorp Super Netball Indigenous Round, an initiative that aims to “celebrate the gathering of many journeys at the same destination”.

Uniforms designed by Indigenous artists were worn, the ball featured an Indigenous design and games were played only after a Welcome to Country.

Despite Netball Australia’s attempt to pay tribute to First Nations people and culture, their statistics on Indigenous player inclusion speak louder.

Waka Waka woman and midcourter for the Queensland Firebirds, Jemma Mi Mi, is the only Indigenous player in the game—and has been for over two years.

Fuelling the fire, despite the league using Mi Mi heavily for the promotion of the Indigenous Round, she was left off the court in her team’s 64-58 victory over Melbourne Vixens in Cairns on Sunday.

The decision to not give Mi Mi court time was met with rage by fans and commentators, with some suggesting it had exposed the league’s tokenism.

Outrage from fans pushed the club to release a statement addressing the issue on Monday evening, with coach Roselee Jencke saying Mi Mi’s omission was due to a “selection issue”.

Prior to Mi Mi, only two Indigenous women have worn Netball Australia colours—Marcia Ella-Duncan, who made her debut in 1986, and Sharon Finnan-White, who retired in 2000.

Ahead of the Suncorp Super Netball Indigenous Round, Ella-Duncan said “statistics don’t lie” and that more needs to be done to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls are given the chance to succeed.

“I’d say my Aboriginality made me invisible,” she said.

“There simply aren’t enough of us playing at this elite level … there has not been enough effort or support to understanding Indigenous athletes.”

Finnan-White agreed that stronger relationships need to be developed between the Indigenous community and sport governing bodies.

“We need cultural awareness training for all netball bodies from grassroots to elite level, and pathways need to cater for the diverse needs of our people,” Finnan-White said said.

She also called for support from large organisations, more opportunities for the Indigenous community to excel, as well as the need for more Indigenous players, coaches, umpires and administrators.

Finnan-White said she loved the concept of the Indigenous Round as an opportunity to showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, but they missed the mark by not letting Mi Mi take the court.

“The Firebirds seem to lack an understanding of the importance of the Indigenous Round and how important this is to our players and community,” she said.

“Jemma should have started the game. Not just because she is Indigenous and it was Indigenous Round, but because she has been playing well all season and I believe she has earned this right.”

Since retiring in 2000, Finnan-White has switched her focus to coaching and helping girls access the game.

She has been involved in setting up a number of Indigenous netball carnivals in New South Wales and the Far North, as well as the initiation of Indigenous programs within netball clubs like Cairns and Townsville.

These grassroots Indigenous netball programs aim to conquer some of the barriers Indigenous players face when it comes to progressing in netball.

Finnan-White said there were multiple barriers to young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander netballers, including costs, transport, conscious and unconscious selection bias, racial stereotypes and a lack of cultural awareness from coaches and managers.

Chief Executive of Netball Australia, Marne Fechner, also admitted the current pathways fail to cater to Indigenous athletes. A full review into the sport’s lack of diversity is set to be delivered in October.

By Imogen Kars