“Free the Flag”- AFL Clubs Join the Campaign

Since its creation in 1971 by Harold Thomas, the Aboriginal flag has come to represent the strength, resistance and resilience of First Nations people. The First Nations flag has played a crucial role in many rallies, protests, events and cultural gatherings. Some of the most significant protests have included the 'National Aboriginies Day' march in 1971, the Canberra tent embassy in 1972, and the many rallies that have taken place since. The Aboriginal flag has been at the centre of all of these significant events, including sports events. 

Image sourced from ABC News. Photo by Joe Castro, 2020.

AFL’s ‘Sir Doug Nicholls Round’, established in 1993, celebrates Indigenous players and culture. This AFL round is named in honour of Sir Doug, an Indigenous Fitzroy player from Yorta Yorta country, and the first Indigenous person to become knighted. This was a result of his devotion  to improving the lives of Indigenous people, and his embodiment of the spirit of reconciliation. The ‘Sir Doug’ round acknowledges the incredible contribution that First Nations players make to AFL. Every year, the games are a highlight of the sporting and cultural calendar. Here, the Aboriginal flag has a significant role in the games’ proceedings; from the grounds to the themed jerseys of the players. However, this year the AFL felt forced to discontinue the use of the Aboriginal flag, due to legal threats that they and the NRL received from WAM clothing. 

The Aboriginal flag is one of the few flags in the world that is copyrighted. It was created by Harold Thomas who left the rights to WAM clothing, a company notoriously known for selling fake Indigenous artwork.

If you’d like to find out more about the controversies surrounding the Aboriginal flag and WAM clothing, check out our post “Anniversary of the Aboriginal Flag First Fly”. The AFL made the decision to discontinue the use of the flag because like many, they firmly believe they should not have to pay for the use of the Aboriginal Flag. To make a stand, 16 AFL clubs have joined the #freetheflag campaign. ABC Sports reporter, Tony Armstrong, comments:

“The AFL community now finds itself again in a position where its power and influence can be harnessed to make positive changes for Aboriginal people.”

Image sourced from Getty Images, 2019.

This rings true as the AFL and the very recent Sir Doug Nicholls Round have become an important driving force for the #freetheflag campaign. The inability to use and celebrate the Aboriginal flag is a loss that strikes close to the heart, and to the First Nations peoples cultural identities. Wiradjuri woman and Bundarra artist Lani Balzan (as seen in the image below) add link has been designing the NRL’s St George Illawarra Indigenous jerseys for four years now. Unfortunately, due to this copyright issue, she is no longer able to include the Aboriginal flag in her design. Lani states:

"It's not just the flag; it's what represents them and our culture and who we are, to have some non-Indigenous company get copyright, it's really upsetting…..It's disappointing because it's coming down to money and the flag doesn't represent money; it represents us as Aboriginal people, and our culture and who we are."

Indigenous artist Lani Balzan with her 2019 jersey design and Dragons players Jonas Pearson, Tristan Sailor, Josh Kerr and Jai Field. Image sourced from ABC News, 2020.

With the ongoing support of the AFL, and many other incredible organizations directed towards the aims of the #freetheflag campaign, we sincerely hope that this important national symbol of Indigenous identity, heritage and culture can be reclaimed.