The news this morning that John Howard is being considered to a head-up a proposed transformation of rugby league was a little alarming, not least of all because of the size of Howard’s head on the front of The Daily Telegraph.

The story hit all the News Limited publications, including The Australian, which reported: “The NRL has approached John Howard to chair an independent commission that will overhaul the structure of the game.

“The former prime minister is a figurehead many believe would stymie the AFL’s foray into league heartland — Sydney’s west — while unifying the game’s fractious set-up between the NRL, the Australian Rugby League, the NSWRL, the Country Rugby League and the Queensland Rugby League.”

Which may or may not be true. But the fact is, most of us couldn’t care less. The annual Exercise, Recreation and Sport Survey conducted by the Australian Sports Commission reveals that the number of people nationally who participated regularly in rugby league in 2007 was less than 180,000 people nationally. That’s only marginally higher than the number of people indulging in Aqua aerobics.

Sad to say, rugby league has been a dying game for many, many years. So it begs the question, is Howard really the man to revamp it? It makes even less sense when you consider a large percentage of the hard-core league fan-base is black. And if you thought Howard was on the nose with parts of white Australia, it’s nothing to compared how he smells in black Australia.

Aboriginal people will walk away in protest from anything associated with John Howard. You think I’m exaggerating? When Howard came to power in 1996, for every black worker leaving the Australian Public Service, two joined. By the time Howard left a decade later, two black workers were leaving for every one who joined. Now just imagine what he could do for rugby league! Not that the game actually needs any help in driving black players away.

The neighbouring Group 4 division in northern NSW is famous for successfully keeping an Aboriginal team — the Moree Boomerangs — out of the local competition for more than a decade. The initial reason given was that it was too far for clubs in the southern part of the region to travel. And then a white Moree club started up, and they were welcomed into the competition. They later folded, but the Boomerangs were still shut out even though they offered to pay travelling team’s costs.

Indeed in the last decade country rugby league has seen the expulsion of at least three Aboriginal teams from competitions around NSW. The reason on each occasion — and I kid you not — is that the behaviour of players and/or fans was unacceptable … this from a sport not exactly known for its manners and goodwill.

It’s also a sport that has been prepared to watch the game die among black communities. The league competition in the Far West region of NSW, which takes in Aboriginal towns like Walgett, Bourke, Brewarrina and Lightning Ridge, collapsed in 1991. The Country Rugby League, whose job it is to safe-guard the sport in the bush, did precisely nothing about it until 2007, when an Aboriginal group emerged to try and provide their kids with some sort of organised sport.

Then, the CRL suddenly re-emerged, and booked all of the grounds around the region for the year in an attempt to squash the start-up competition.

My point is, racism in rugby league – especially in the bush — is overt. They don’t even try to hide it. The AFL by comparison, is widely regarded as the most Aboriginal friendly sport in Australia. Indeed Aboriginal participation is regularly celebrated and honoured.

For more than a decade, the AFL has been playing an annual “Indigenous game”, a celebration of the contribution of black players. Today, it’s major production called “Dreamtime at the G” and is preceded by a celebration at Federation Square.

By contrast, the ARL begrudgingly agreed to allow an Aboriginal exhibition match at last year’s World Cup. It had to be dragged to the idea kicking and screaming.

Since 2001, the AFL has promoted a bi-annual Indigenous All-Stars game in Darwin. It is a major game on the pre-season calendar. The AFL also pumps a substantial amount of time, resources and funds into developing Indigenous players through the AFL Foundation, and Gerard Neesham’s Clontarf Academy in Western Australia has been specifically designed up to help young Aboriginal players into the AFL, and into a decent education. There is no league equivalent.

League is only now starting to play catch up on the AFL. The NRL has recently adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan (who hasn’t?) and thrown its support behind the Close the Gap campaign. But the governing body of the game — the ARL — does very little and league generally has a long, long way to go before it comes anywhere close to the AFL.

Of course, outstanding Aboriginal stars like Ricky Walford and Dave Liddiard have been doing wonderful things in league for more than a decade, but they’ve been fighting an uphill battle to drag the game into the 21st century.

I really don’t see how John Howard could possibly assist that cause.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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