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Spencer Leniu may be Indigenous but he’s a settler here: unpacking racism in National Rugby League

Spencer Leniu’s racism towards Ezra Mam underscores the privileged position held by Indigenous settlers and highlights the wide-ranging, harmful effects of racism, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth, according to Dr Tamika Worrell and Dr Innez Haua from the Department of Critical Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University.


Tamika Worrell and Innez Haua write:

In a National Rugby League (NRL) first, the two fixtures of round one was played in Las Vegas on Southern Paiute lands. In the second game of the Brisbane Broncos versus Sydney Roosters, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander player Ezra Mam was told to “f*ck up you monkey” on field, by opponent, Roosters player Spencer Leniu, a Samoan player who grew up on Dharug Country in Western Sydney.

On field, referee Adam Gee said “Let’s go, we’ll get on with it later”. When pushed further, in an escalated tone, Gee said: “Do you want to make a formal complaint?”

As Mam and captain said yes, the final say from Adam Gee was “Ezra has made a formal complaint that’s racial in nature against Spencer, I haven’t heard it, the incident goes on report and it will be dealt with after, that’s where it’s left”.

The matter was formally entered into the NRL judiciary post-game.

https://twitter.com/flashblak/status/1764478438201757983?s=20

In preparation for the judiciary, Spencer Leniu entered an early guilty plea, accompanied by the following apology:

“I want to apologise to Ezra and his family for using the word I did and I am sincerely sorry to cause him such distress. I’ve put my hand up and want to take ownership of this. I said the word but I didn’t mean it in a racist way. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not who I am.”

This stands in stark contrast to his portrayal of the incident during post-game interviews, where he minimised the incident by describing it as “fun and games”.

This apology lacks serious accountability. Leniu initially denied any offence had occurred and then claims responsibility for a racial slur but “not in a racist way”. This apology does not acknowledge the layers of harm caused by this racism.

The long history of dehumanising and vilifying racism through slurs such as monkey, or ape is well known. This has been prevalent in sports with instances by spectators and media personalities against AFL great, Adam Goodes.

Vika Mana (@endlessyarning) depicts the layers of harm that exist in his ongoing dehumanisation:

https://www.instagram.com/p/C4FsuS7rkig/?igsh=MWJobW1meG8xMHJ3dA

The argument that Leniu, as an Indigenous Samoan man, cannot racially vilify another Indigenous person because they both share Indigenous heritage, somehow ‘cancels out’ offence, is deeply inaccurate and invalidating.

Indigeneity is connection to place. Leniu’s experience of Samoan Indigeneity does not equate to Mam’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Indigeneity, particularly if Leniu now resides on stolen Aboriginal lands.

The idea that it is not harmful for a “brown person to call another brown person” a racial slur gives rise to the misunderstanding of racism and ultimately gives licence to justify racist rhetoric and discourses.

It is clear there needs to be racial literacy training in the NRL at all levels, including referees, commentators, players and audiences.

Ongoing impacts of this harm

Of most concern is the harm that this perpetuates for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to be reminded they exist in a world that dehumanises them and perpetuates harm against them.

The NRL platforms many sporting idols for fans with rugby league being one of the most televised sports in Australia. With round one being played internationally, this incident showcases rugby league superstars perpetuating racism on a global stage.

This is further amplified by social media platforms that function as a vehicle enabling cyber bullying of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Social media reports of this incident invite commentary of prevailing racist rhetoric where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples –including youth – are forced to read comments that further dehumanise them, that encourage violence and minimise and invalidate the feelings of Mam. Examples of this racist vitriol are captured here by Athletes are Human.

These conversations transcend social media, and are also occurring in classrooms, on and by footy fields, in the media. This plays out everyday where we see settlers unlawfully cable tie and detain Indigenous children and other violences perpetrated against them.

Penalty

The NRL Judiciary hearing saw Spencer Leniu receive a penalty of eight games. Whilst Leniu’s counsel requested leniency based on remorse, the panel decided unanimously on the eight-game suspension.

In this hearing, we heard from Mam, who provided a statement of 12 paragraphs outlining the impact of this harm. He allowed four of these paragraphs to be read out, with the eight remaining paragraphs being confidential. Whilst eight remain undisclosed, we can only imagine the levels of harm this has caused Mam and the impacts on him.

We heard another apology from Leniu, as well as a reiteration that there was no “racial intent” from saying to Mam “f**k up you monkey”.

https://x.com/emmalawrence90/status/1767098388489908364?s=20

We are unable to say what a sufficient punishment would be to make up for the harm caused, which extends well beyond Mam.

If this sought to rehabilitate, we would see the involvement of base line cultural competency training and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community engagement based locally to Leniu’s home club, Roosters.

Reflections for the future

Next week, round 3 of the NRL, is multicultural week, a round that acknowledges the many cultural identities of the people and players involved in the NRL.

In 2022 the NRL, in recognising the diversity of players, but in particular, the Pacific (Māori and Pasifika) heritage of near 50 percent of the players in the league, launched Māori and Pasifika advisory groups. In 2023 they have further committed to the wellbeing of Pacific players by rolling out Māori and Pasifika training modules and advisory groups and roles.

In February of this year, the RLPA (Rugby League Players Association) launched “the Mana Group, the Association’s new player advisory group that will enhance and strengthen the voices and advocacy of Pasifika and Māori players.”

The NRL has been slow in acknowledging the significant Pacific participation in the game. For too long, it has been a case of wanting the ‘product’ and not the ‘person’.

However, the past three years have seen a push in focussing on the wellbeing of Pacific players and their identities, recognising that family, culture and community are inherent to individual Pacific players.

All of these initiatives focus on cultural wellbeing of Pacific heritages through acknowledging their unique Indigenous cultures and identities. These acknowledgements should continue to be encouraged and should most certainly remain a permanent fixture in player wellbeing.

However, Māori and Pasifika players and their advisory groups must remember where they are expressing their cultural identities and heritages – it is on stolen Aboriginal lands.

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Māori and Pasifika players (and peoples) who reside in Australia are recipients of privilege. They continue to benefit (including paid sporting contracts) from ongoing colonialism and settling on stolen Aboriginal lands.

Therefore, learning the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance against settler colonialism and training in racial literacy is imperative for Māori and Pasifika players to understand their privilege and how racism operates in Australia. Understanding how this can differ significantly from their experiences of being Indigenous to the Pacific should be mandatory for Māori and Pasifika players.

Māori and Pasifika peoples proudly declare their identity through relationship to place, which enables others to place and connect with them. Acknowledging a Māori and Pasifika Indigenous cultural identity in Australia equates to acknowledging that we are visitors here, that this is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and place.

Recognising both the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the privileges of Māori and Pasifika peoples in Australia, fosters a mutual understanding of Indigeneity for all Indigenous players/peoples in the NRL.

This mutual recognition will nurture a space which enables a solidarity as global Indigenous relatives, to stand together and fight the harm and violence of racism and settler colonialism.

Author details

Dr Tamika Worrell is Senior Lecturer, Department of Critical Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University

Dr Innez Haua is Lecturer, Department of Critical Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University


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