Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman waves to the crowd after wining the women’s 200 metres final at the Commonwealth Games in Canada, 1994. She sparked controversy by doing her victory lap with the Aboriginal flag, but it elevated her to the status of a hero to her people. (AP Photo/Russell McPhedran)
NATIONAL: As NAIDOC week comes to a close, JAMAL IDRIS* writes on the importance of empowering our people.
Whether it was Ricky Walford, a former St George Dragons great, preaching the message “say no to drugs’’ or Olympic legend Cathy Freeman proudly flying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, I have always believed it is important to empower our people.
With NAIDOC week just ended, this is a good opportunity for me to point out the importance of celebrating our culture and not being ashamed of where you come from.
This year’s National NAIDOC theme was Change: the next step is ours, which reflects my attitude towards being proud of where I come from and sharing that with the wider community. I always knew that if I ever became successful I wanted to make my people proud and help give them the strength and pride in our culture to know that anyone can achieve anything, no matter what.
The theme really reflects my story. I have been lucky enough to have been given a lot of opportunities and support from a range of good people who didn’t have to help me. That’s why I really enjoy charity work and giving back to the community.
Before I came to Sydney my opportunities were limited and I really didn’t think I would finish high school. I wasn’t really focused on finishing my education and was more interested in playing sport.
I was going nowhere fast, until I was given an opportunity to play football in Sydney. But with a catch… I had to finish high school.
No school meant no football. That was the rule.
With that in mind, I packed my bag and was enrolled into De LaSalle College in Bankstown, and had a contract to play SG Ball with the Bulldogs.
I was given flexible study arrangements which helped, but really without that push from the Bulldogs and the teachers that were willing to take the time to work with my schedule, I wouldn’t have been able to finish school or play football.
This has really motivated me to spread the word amongst the youth of our mob and encourage them to finish school.
Even if they are good at sport, they always need a back up plan.
I often get asked by kids and their parents what I did to become successful, and I always stress that not everyone can make it in sport. You have to be prepared to finish your education to make sure you don’t close those doors.
I also say that going to school and playing sport gives you that extra drive and commitment to succeed.
Football isn’t just about being on the field and playing a game.
Because I finished school, I am now able to read and understand contracts, work out my own finances, and make sure I fully understand all of my commitments before I sign anything. Playing for the NRL now gives me the opportunity to spread this message everywhere I go.
Recently I was on holidays in Cairns and met some of the Murri kids outside the local fish and chip shop.
They were scraping together their coins and trying to work out what to buy. I went up to them and said ‘Hungry fellas’, they all nodded, so I shouted us a big feed of prawns, crabs, oysters, fish and chips.
As we were enjoying the feed, I started to get to know them and their stories. I asked them about school and what year they were in.
Some of them told me they didn’t like school and didn’t see the point in going. “Why do you need to go to school,” they asked. “No jobs up here, only for whitefellas”.
If these kids stayed at school and stuck with their education, they would open more doors to do what they want to do, and will be able to earn a decent wage and break the cycle.
I told them I was lucky to make it in the NRL, but would never have made it if I didn’t stay in school.
We so often overlook this message and just see the flash side of being an NRL star.
Change will come from us. It’s not going to come from anyone else. I can ensure that I’m always going to be true to myself, true to my culture and roots. I will always be proud to wave the Aboriginal flag and let everyone know that I am a part of the essence of our country.
• Jamal Idris is a Worimi man and a professional Rugby League player, currently representing the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.