This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
Indigenous Round is much more than just another round on the NRL calendar.
If you have any doubts over the validity of that statement, a chat with Manly forward Joel Thompson will put you on the right course.
The round – which was celebrated last weekend – forms just one part of a mindset across the game which looks to recognise, support and celebrate the role Indigenous people play in our game.
Thompson comes from a little place called Ivanhoe. His grandmother’s family are Ngiyaampaa people and his grandfather’s family come from the Wiradjuri.
As a child he was brought up to be proud of where he came from and what he represents. Learning about his family history and culture has always been a big part of his life.
For players like Joel, Indigenous Round provides the chance to share his culture with his non-Indigenous teammates and to highlight the power of footy to spread powerful messages.
“I remember as a kid, no matter what was happening around you, you could always rely on footy to pick you up,” Joel says.
“I just know for a lot of kids out there doing it tough, footy is the biggest stage for them.
“To see the game embrace our culture and showcase it is an important moment for them to push their chests out and be proud of their culture as well.”
During his 209-game NRL career, Joel has watched as the NRL’s influence in this space has grown. In the early years, he acknowledges that not much was being done. That’s not the case anymore.
“Your average person doesn’t realise how much work is being done in communities. They may see an odd positive story in the media, which is rare, but there is some good work being done by the players out there,” he said.
“It’s good to be part of it and good to be part of the code.”
But that doesn’t mean our game is perfect. Players are people and some will make mistakes.
“A lot of players have slip ups and I’m one of them. I’m not a perfect angel and I had slip-ups early in my career,” Thompson says.
His hope is that players take the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and take the chances they get to give back to their communities.
Throughout his career, Joel has been recognised as someone who does give back. One space he is particularly passionate about is mental health and Joel has been a State of Mind ambassador since 2015.
While it’s important to educate the wider population about the importance of mental health, it’s equally important for our players to be educated and supported in this space given the pressures that many of them face.
“I see the pressure that comes from media and social media in particular. It gives voices to people that probably shouldn’t have voices because their views are quite negative,” Thompson said.
Thompson experienced the challenges of social media first hand following Manly’s loss to the Gold Coast Titans last week.
During the game, a post went up on social media, accusing Joel of making a homophobic slur during the game. Joel denies that this happened and explains that he was wearing a mouth guard and was clearly pointing at a replay at that moment.
No further action has been taken following the game given that Joel has vehemently denied it and the fact that no other player or official heard the alleged slur.
The impact of moments like that are significant, particularly for someone who has worked so hard throughout his career to promote messages about diversity and inclusion.
“It makes me feel like I can’t wait to get out of the NRL and go back into normal society,” he said.
“I copped so many messages after the game, from people not even following the game calling me names and you think ‘I don’t really need this’, but unfortunately it’s a part of footy that you hate to be part of, but have to expect to be part of.”
When Thompson finishes his NRL career, he wants to be remembered as someone who gave everything during training and on the field, as well as for being a team player and putting the team first before his own needs.
While I have no doubt that this may be his legacy on the footy field, there will be many others who will remember his outstanding contribution to his community and his role in inspiring and challenging the people around him to be the best that they can be, no matter their circumstances.