Players from various Australian Football League (AFL) teams showed their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement last June with a pre-game kneel, but Nic Naitanui says Australia doesn’t necessarily need to make taking a knee the norm despite many international sporting leagues continuing the gesture in 2021.
West Coast Eagles player Naitanui said the AFL has “got better as a code” in acknowledging the country’s multiculturalism, though telling players to take a knee while the national anthem is sung before games is better suited to overseas sports.
“I don’t know about the knee side of things. I think it’s probably more an American thing,” Naitanui told HuffPost Australia. “I think doing something in our own way might work.”
The Fijian Australian said taking a knee might be a gesture Australia can adopt later on.
“It’s rare that we sing the national anthem before games, but whether we do something, I don’t know, that might be something down the track,” he said.
The 30-year-old said the AFL is still “doing well” to acknowledge First Nations people in Australia.
“I’m a big believer that our footy clubs are really well-placed in doing well for the country and acknowledging the traditional custodians and the first land owners of everywhere we go,” said Naitanui.
He explained that whether his team is playing at home in Perth or interstate, the club will host “a meeting where someone who’s local, an Indigenous elder, will speak”.
The sportsman said it’s important for football players and fans to “pay respect to different cultures, and just having an understanding that everyone is different and it’s such a multicultural, diverse country.”
“So I think just knowing that everyone’s got different beliefs – like we’ve got Christians, Muslims, we’ve got everyone in our football club behind these four walls,” he said. “So just accepting everyone and being open to a bit of change is probably the biggest thing.”
Internationally, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s initial kneeling protest against racial injustice and police brutality in 2016 earned attention across the United States.
Last year many sports, including US baseball teams, adopted the practice to show solidarity with the BLM movement, while Formula One is still deciding whether F1 drivers will continue to take a knee in 2021.
Last month 16 England rugby union players decided to take the knee before their Six Nations match against Scotland. Meanwhile, Premier League footballer Wilfried Zaha said in February he wouldn’t be taking a knee because “it’s degrading”.
“Growing up, my parents just let me know that I should just be proud to be Black, no matter what, and I just think we should stand tall,” he said at an FT Business of Football conference. “I think the meaning behind the whole thing is becoming something that we just do now. That’s not enough. I’m not going to take the knee.”
In June 2020 Naitanui and his West Coast Eagles teammates decided to take a knee and wear black warm-up shirts before their game against the Gold Coast Suns.
Naitanui said he’s glad players could “showcase our support and stand in solidarity” with the BLM movement through the gesture, especially after he initially feared the AFL “might not allow our voices to be heard as much”.
“It was a big thing for me in particular because I wasn’t sure whether the AFL would say something,” he said.
“It was pretty big in the United States [with] what was happening over there and the injustice that was happening, in particular for those with coloured skin. I thought that maybe the AFL industry, [being] so far away and detached from that side of the world, might not get involved and might not allow our voices to be heard as much. They were really good, they got behind it.
“We had T-shirts during the round, I think it was the first game when we commenced playing again after our break. To be able to spread some of those messages and stand up and talk publicly was something I’m very grateful for and grateful the AFL allowed us to do so.”
Naitanui stars in the AFL’s new seven-part docu-series, ‘Making Their Mark’, which will address some of the racism faced by players. It will be released on Friday, March 12.
“I’ve had it [racism] for the majority of my life, away from the footy field just in everyday life. But it’s been something I’ve learnt to deal with, and coping mechanisms have been different through different stages of my life and my career as a footy player,” said Naitanui.
‘Making Their Mark’ will also follow Stuart Dew (Gold Coast Suns senior coach), Stephen Coniglio (Greater Western Sydney Giants captain), Eddie Betts (Carlton Football Club forward), Rory Sloane, (Adelaide Football Club captain), and the senior leadership of the Richmond Football Club (Peggy O’Neal, Brendon Gale and Damien Hardwick) as they pursue the goal of an AFL grand final victory during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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