The absence of the Aboriginal flag during the AFL's Indigenous Round stings

18 August 2020

Strange as it may seem, the AFL will not be displaying the Aboriginal flag on its grounds during its Indigenous Round this weekend.

As an Aboriginal man, that stings. The flag means so much to me. It should be celebrated.

It’s a copyright dispute. A company not owned by Indigenous Australians, WAM Clothing, has exclusive rights to use the flag on clothing.

Last year it threatened legal action against the AFL and NRL for using the flag on their respective Indigenous Round jerseys.

Jake Waterman screams in delight and holds his arms out to the side
All AFL teams wear Indigenous-themed jerseys, but none will feature the Aboriginal flag this year.(AAP: Gary Day)

The use of the Aboriginal flag has been a source of much tension within the Aboriginal community in recent years.

The Melbourne-based, Indigenous-owned social enterprise, Clothing the Gap, was also issued with cease-and-desist letters last year for using the Aboriginal flag.

As a result, it has started a campaign called Free the Flag.

As the name suggests, the campaign is designed to wrest control of the flag’s rights back from WAM Clothing to the Aboriginal people.

Sydney Swans star Lance Franklin, a Wajak and Noongar man, was criticised by some Indigenous communities earlier this year because his clothing brand negotiated with WAM to use the Aboriginal flag.

As a result of the backlash, Franklin removed the merchandise from sale.

“It was never our intention to disrespect others in Aboriginal communities,” Franklin said.

“As a result of this issue, we will not be seeking to order or sell any further T-shirts or merchandise until the matter of our flag being made freely available is resolved for the good of our people, and our country.”

Lance Franklin in the Swans new Indigenous guernseyLance Franklin in the Swans new Indigenous guernsey
Lance Franklin pulled merchandise from his fashion line after complaints from the Indigenous community.(Supplied: Sydney Swans)

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a fever pitch and many Indigenous footballers have been targeted with online racial attacks, the Aboriginal flag’s absence from Sir Doug Nicholls Round will be a glaring omission.

The Indigenous playing cohort are all incredibly proud of their heritage and this round is one they all circle as soon as the fixture comes out.

For Aboriginal people, the flag means everything. It is more than a flag — it is a symbol of pride, love and identity.

Last weekend, ABC Grandstand spoke to St Kilda’s Noongar and Yamajti star, Paddy Ryder, about the fact the Saints would not be playing in their Indigenous jumper this week.

“All the boys are pretty disappointed,” Ryder said.

“We’re running out with red, black and yellow socks but it’s nowhere near the same thing. We’re spewing.”

Paddy Ryder leaps towards a yellow ball and looks to catch it with one hand above the ballPaddy Ryder leaps towards a yellow ball and looks to catch it with one hand above the ball
Paddy Ryder said he was “spewing” about the Indigenous flag not being on kits this year.(AAP: Dan Peled)

The AFL community now finds itself again in a position where its power and influence can be harnessed to make positive changes for Aboriginal people.

Earlier this year, AFLPA president and Geelong star Patrick Dangerfield said in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests: “I think it’s being there for them [the AFL’s Indigenous players], that they’re comfortable with everything that’s happening, but also how can we improve it?”

“How can it be something more than that, that’s ongoing and we facilitate and really drive real change within all Australians.”

Two players who are already living by that creed are Collingwood’s Narungga star Travis Varcoe and teammate Darcy Moore. They’ve joined Clothing the Gap’s Free the Flag campaign as formal ambassadors.

As we look forward to this year’s Indigenous Round — where “Dreamtime at the G” becomes “Dreamtime in the NT” — the absence of the Aboriginal flag highlights just how much work there is still to be done.

Despite my excitement to see the competition celebrate Indigenous culture, I cannot help but see the irony.

Those Aboriginal players whose culture we are celebrating, and whose stories we are telling, will not have their own flag on the grounds.

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