MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The teams selected for Australia’s annual State of Origin series offer a snapshot of a modern nation’s diversity but a quiet protest by indigenous players in Wednesday’s opener will also provide a reminder of the country’s troubled history.
Players from the Queensland and New South Wales teams will line up for the national anthem before the game but a number of the Aboriginal Australians among them will stand silent as “Advance Australia Fair” rings out at Brisbane’s Lang Park.
“It doesn’t represent us,” Queensland centre Will Chambers, who traces ancestry to the Yolngu people of northern Australia, told reporters last week.
“It’s our personal choice and I won’t be singing.”
Chambers will be joined in protest by a trio of New South Wales players in Cody Walker, Josh Addo-Carr and Latrell Mitchell, the great-nephew of women’s tennis great Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the only Aboriginal Australian to win a tennis Grand Slam title.
Wednesday will not be the first time the national anthem has been snubbed. Walker and other players declined to sing it before the start of the Indigenous All Stars game in February.
The protest passed almost unnoticed, with comparatively little media attention devoted to the pre-season fixture.
As one of the most watched events on the Australian sporting calendar, the Origin series provides a much bigger platform for such a message.
Advance Australia Fair was penned by a Scottish-born schoolteacher in the 19th century but was not adopted as the national anthem until 1984.
The lyrics describe a country of “golden soil and wealth for toil” that welcomes “those who’ve come across the seas” with “boundless plains to share”.
The song has been denounced by activists for failing to recognise indigenous people who lived on the continent for an estimated 60,000 years before British colonists claimed possession in 1770.
New South Wales centre Mitchell took particular umbrage with the song’s opening line: “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.”
“We aren’t young and free. We’re the longest-living culture in the world,” Mitchell said last week.
“I guess just for them words to be in that, it just contradicts the whole anthem for us singing it.”
Indigenous people, who number about 700,000 of Australia’s population of 25 million, were dispossessed of their traditional lands by settling European pastoralists in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Scores were killed in organised massacres and many Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families by government agencies and church missionaries until late into the 20th century.
Indigenous Australians continue to track near the bottom in almost every national economic and social indicator.
Australia’s major sports have worked hard to stamp out racism on and off the field, but Aboriginal athletes continue to suffer abuse from fans at stadiums and on social media.
The State of Origin protest comes amid preview screenings of a new documentary on the treatment of Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal activist and former Sydney Swans player who was booed relentlessly by stadium crowds throughout the whole 2015 season.
The Goodes saga provoked fierce debate about the motivations behind the jeering, and it remains a source of regret for Australian Football League executives who admitted they had failed to take a strong enough stand against it.
The planned NRL protest has raised echoes of Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the United States national anthem before NFL games.
But it has proved far less divisive than the Kaepernick affair, which sparked a national debate about racial injustice and drew the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.
A few conservative media pundits have criticised the players for using a big sporting event as a political platform, but their team mates, coaches and the National Rugby League, the sport’s governing body, have been supportive of their right to make a silent stand.
“It’s nothing to do with black, white, brown. We’re all one, we’re all Australians, and we just want to get recognised,” said Mitchell.
“We’re not using the Origin stage for this. It’s just our opinion, it’s how we feel, and we’re very proud indigenous men and Australian men.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford