Honoring the territory’s history

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One of us has just returned from guiding a group of university students through Australia and while there came across a work concept that could immediately benefit our North American leagues. That idea ? Full recognition of Indigenous peoples on whose lands the NFL/CFL, NBA/WNBA, NHL, MLB, MLS/NWSL, MLR, UFC, PGA Tour/LPGA, NASCAR and IndyCar teams currently compete.

Discussing the idea, the other spoke about his past experiences working on Canadian government policy related to Indigenous sport and the many barriers that still exist to making real progress for Indigenous people and their involvement in organized sport.

Our conversation led to this article and a fervent hope that we can inspire progressive change.

To be clear (as a disclaimer) this is not an argumentative piece supporting the team name changes of Redskins (now Commanders), Indians (Guardians) and Fighting Sioux (Fighting Hawks ), or a debate about whether others (think Blackhawks, Seminoles, Utes, Aztecs, Chiefs, Braves, and Warriors) should reconsider their entrenched and supposedly well-meaning positions.

More who follow these discussions know, despite semi-frequent opinion pieces, that good intentions usually end in someone’s outrage. Instead, our focus today is to challenge hierarchical norms and initiate an overdue tribute to Indigenous North America inspired by something happening in Australia that honors generations. natives passed in a festive way, we firmly believe that it could work in North America.

Want this example?

Most Australian professional sports leagues – the Australian Football League, National Rugby League, National Basketball League, Supercars Championship – designate one week of the season as the Indigenous round and require all their teams to produce Indigenous uniforms (or paint schemes on cars) that is commemorative, fashionable but also fully heartfelt.

Members of the Cronulla Sharks rugby team in their native round jerseys.Grant Trouville

As it says on the AFL’s website, “Jumpers are an incredible tapestry of artistry, wit, color and meaning.” And then the website asks if AFL fans have a favourite.

What a new approach. The concept is not strictly about monetizing home-and-away merchandise (as American sports marketers would do), but rather looking for artistic ways to repair past bias, prejudice, and racism.

What was even more fascinating to watch how each team incorporated Aboriginal art into a unique canvas featured on the team’s guernsey (another word for jumper or team shirt). They not only honored distinct Indigenous cultures, but also celebrated the past and present.

Collingwood artists showed a magpie shedding its old feathers to reflect a changing era. Essendon’s effort was crafted by star striker Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, who chose to portray a journey to a central meeting place.

One of our favorites was the Geelong Cats sweater, which was fashioned by Corrina Eccles and incorporated significant landmarks known throughout the Barwon region. As Eccles noted, “I wanted to tell the story of Wadawurrung country, the story of Djilang, and take people on a journey to what the country was like before the way we see the built environment today.” today. In the design I have the Kardiniyoo, the sunrise unfolding and the two teams coming together to play what we call Marngrook. The Barwon River is a place our eels would go down [and] Bunjil [watching] on this country he created, [flying] on the stadium, watching over the countryside and the river.

Click here for the Cairns Taipans 2022 Aboriginal Jersey Story

Interestingly, indigenous efforts were not limited to the AFL. In Sydney, Syracuse Students Abroad met an NRL team that employed an Indigenous Programs Coordinator who runs the Cronulla Sharks Deadly Choices program in schools. She also coordinates the NRL’s Indigenous Round, Reconciliation Action Plan and conducts health and wellness checks with members of the Indigenous community.

“I will be in sport until the day I die,” said Jessica Macartney, Sharks Government and Community Leader, “because sport can be used as a vehicle for change.”

Australia should not be left alone in honoring its original inhabitants or promoting reconciliation towards First Nations peoples. In Canada, where the horrors of what happened in residential schools are being exposed and branding Canada’s reputation, teams and leagues should consider taking inspiration from the AFL or NRL.

Artist and historian Henry Fourmile meets with Cairns Taipans players to discuss the importance of design.Cairns Taipan

Noting reconciliation efforts Down Under does not mean that North American teams are not conducting their own community outreach for various underserved or marginalized communities. But in places where the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA brands (i.e. intellectual property) are treated as sacred, it seems that uniform changes are often limited to honoring women (Awareness Month breast cancer) and veterans.

With growing awareness of Black Lives Matter (and with the horror still fresh in our minds of the Buffalo and Uvalde tragedies), we know our ecosystem of esports practitioners face daily challenges to help fans divert looking at the realities of modern life. That said, there is an important community that most teams and leagues seem to forget to honor and help.

Isn’t it time that professional sports leagues and North American racing conglomerates recognize that their stadiums are built on lands with deep historical significance and, in almost all cases, were built on hallowed ground that weren’t bought (or traded fairly) but stolen? Isn’t it time we went far beyond reading a statement before leaders give speeches, and instead providing uniform evidence that we are trying to make amends?

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly is the dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Maine. Their new book, “Business the NHL Way: Lessons from the Fastest Game on Ice,” will be published by University of Toronto Press in October.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email Editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com
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