Why Mundine had to quit to change the NRL

Awareness around Indigenous issues is at a much higher level in the NRL than during the 1990s according to Australian boxing legend and Dragons great Anthony Mundine.

Mundine, a proud Bundjalung Wiradjuri man, spoke to Wide World of Sports ahead the NRL’s Indigenous Round, which aims to underline societal issues impacting Aboriginal Australians.

The former Dragons five-eighth is well equipped to talk about the subject. Mundine pointed to the culture of racism within rugby league as one of the driving forces which pushed him into boxing.

In 1998 he was racially vilified by Bulldog Barry Ward and was “absolutely disgusted” by the paltry $10,000 fine given to Ward by the NRL at the time. When the fine was later halved by the league, he said: “Boxing is a very definite option for me and I may just take it up now … Rugby league may be too willing to tolerate racism.”

Rugby league has worn several black eyes over the years due to claims of racism. Just last year, Newcastle player Mitch Barnett was accused of calling Titans star Tyrone Peachey a “black c—‘ on the field. Barnett escaped sanction after the NRL’s investigation found no evidence of Peachey’s claim but the facts remain contested even after both players went through a conciliation process.

Despite the incident and a long history of similar cases, Mundine believes players are a lot more appreciated in today’s game because standing up to racism and bringing light to social justice has become more “fashionable”.

“I think it’s a lot better today, not just Aboriginal Australians but non-indigenous fellas are starting to be more educated and the see the oppression among the Aboriginal people and want better for Australia as a whole,” Mundine said.

“It’s more fashionable to support that today. Hopefully I had a hand to play back in my day and paved the way for Latrell and the brothers to come together.”

Even though Mundine has used questionable tactics in the past to promote his fights and cut down his league rivals, sometimes at the expense of fellow Aboriginal Australians, the 134-game champion provided a path for the likes of Cody Walker, Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr to speak their minds without the fear held by other Indigenous players of the past.

The Aussie sports icon said he was different to the other players to come before him at the Dragons. While all are proud of of their heritage, the likes of Ricky Walford, Jeff Hardy and later on Nathan Blacklock, were not confrontational people according to Mundine.

“I was the only one to come out and talk the talk and tell the truth. And they always tried getting someone from my mob to go against me. They didn’t like that I was talking the truth,” Mundine said.

“The truth is like a rock, you throw it into a pack of dogs the one it will hit will bark the loudest. They were barking at me my whole career but I was talking the truth.

“The brothers playing at the time were the Ricky Walfords, Jeff Hardys. I looked up to them and they helped me pave the way but I sort of came into my own because I love boxers, I love fighters.

“I loved Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali. I wanted to be like them as well but they gave me strength. I love Malcolm X, he was the one that ingrained in me the belief to come through any adversity or oppression I was going through at the time.”

While incidents of racism have never truly left the game, it has never robbed Indigenous Australians of their love of rugby league, says Mundine. You only have to look at the NRL’s biggest stars and the legacy they’ve left behind. Four Indigenous players have played more than 300 NRL games ​including Johnathan Thurston, Cliff Lyons, Sam Thaiday and Scott Prince.

Thurston won the Dally M Medal four times while fellow Indigenous legend Greg Inglis holds the State of Origin try-scoring record with 18 for the Maroons.

Mundine says the way the Indigenous players play the game has always been one of the features of the code. The instinctive off-the-cuff style means an Indigenous player is always in the conversation among the best players of every generation.

“We’re all gifted people but Indigenous people are more gifted than the norm. There is no other style like it,” he said.

“If you want to see razzle dazzle then come and see the Aboriginal boys do their thing. Today we got Latrell, Cody, the Foxx (Addo-Carr), my nephew Reimis Smith, we got so many players that are appealing to the eye.

“Rugby league gives a lot of hope to my people and gives them a sense of pride. My people love it we’ll always love it and is a big part of the community.

“You go from generation to generation a black fella is the best or one of the best in the game. From GI to Arthur Beetson – there’s so many.”

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