When Jamal Idris and Jharal Yow Yeh were selected to play for Australia earlier this season, they brought the number of indigenous players in the 17-man squad up to a record six.
It served as a reminder to fans of just how prominent Aboriginal players are in rugby league.
Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less than 3 per cent of Australia’s population, they make up more than 10 per cent of current NRL players.
But while Aboriginal players are among the NRL’s brightest stars, the situation for our people off the field is vastly different.
Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet on average an Aboriginal child born today will still live for more than a decade less than a non-Aboriginal child.
Aboriginal babies are up to three times more likely to die before the age of one than other Australian babies and Aboriginal people face much higher risks of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and kidney failure.
The success of its indigenous stars prompted the NRL to dedicate a round of matches each season since 2009 (this year’s is this weekend) to closing the life expectancy gap between indigenous and other Australians.
In doing so, rugby league was the first sporting code in Australia to join Close the Gap, the nation’s largest ever campaign to improve indigenous health.
The aim of the campaign is to close the gap in Aboriginal life expectancy within a generation – by the year 2030.
There are several ways the NRL’s involvement is helping to achieve this.
The first is by highlighting that Aboriginal achievement is not just restricted to the sporting field.
Although the success of our indigenous rugby league champions is well known, the work of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health champions often takes place out of the spotlight.
It’s a little known fact that there are more than 150 indigenous doctors practising around Australia.
In fact, Dr Mark Wenitong, an Aboriginal doctor, recently won the Australian Medical Association’s Excellence in Health Care Award for 2011, a national award conferred on an individual who has made a significant contribution to improving health or health care in Australia.
Rugby league also embodies the kind of partnerships essential to closing the gap – every week in the NRL, indigenous and non-indigenous players come together successfully to achieve a common goal.
Although the federal, state and territory governments have signed up to the aims of our campaign and have devoted much needed funding to tackle the problem, they can learn from rugby league when it comes to adopting a partnership approach to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A detailed, generational plan of action is also needed to close the gap.
Rugby league has a proud history of achievement when it comes to Aboriginal participation in the game.
By supporting the Close the Gap campaign it uses its immense reach and influence to achieve even more – ensuring that Aboriginal children can enjoy the same long, healthy and prosperous lives as all Australian kids by the year 2030.
Tom Calma is co-chair of the Close the Gap campaign steering committee
This opinion editorial was first published by The Courier-Mail 4 August 2011.