There has only ever been two Indigenous players to represent the Diamonds throughout netball’s long history.
Marcia Ella-Duncan was the first, debuting in 1986. Sharon Finnan-White was the second, debuting in 1990.
However, no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander player has worn the Diamonds dress in the 20 years since they finished their careers.
In 2018, the sport introduced an Indigenous Round to the Super Netball competition.
Looking to pay tribute to First Nations people, the athletes wore intricate and colourful dresses with Indigenous art, took part in cultural ceremonies and aimed to give recognition to players like Ella-Duncan and Finnan-White.
Yet in 2020, it appeared those efforts may have just been paying lip service.
‘We missed an opportunity’
Last week, Netball Australia’s CEO Marne Fechner acknowledged that more needed to be done by the governing body in its pathway systems, given four per cent of Australian participants identify as Indigenous people at the grassroots level and there is only one player in Super Netball.
Queensland Firebirds midcourter Jemma Mi Mi is a proud Wakka Wakka woman and had been the player doing most of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting the upcoming round.
Come gameday, however, the Firebirds left Mi Mi on the bench.
As someone that has been a sole figure at the top level before, Marcia Ella-Duncan told the ABC she felt absolutely shattered watching the game, but not surprised.
“I’m disappointed for Jemma. I’m disappointed for the game. We missed an opportunity to take advantage of a platform and to really do something substantial,” she said.
“Such a small thing like giving Mi Mi some time on court, would have had a huge impact and that is systematic of the system. They didn’t need to do much to have a big impact.”
Another element to the story which fuelled further anger within the netball community, was the Firebird’s reluctance to address fans’ outrage.
The ABC reached out to the club for comment on Sunday night, but was told they had no intention to address the matter.
But after fan criticism kept rolling yesterday, the Firebirds eventually released a statement from coach Roselee Jencke, saying Mi Mi’s benching was due to a selection issue.
She said the decision had been made by her alongside the team’s leadership group.
“The decision not to put Jemma on the court was the right one from a game strategy perspective, however we misread community expectations and the significance of Jemma’s court time in the game in this round,” the statement read.
Ella-Duncan said this was nothing more than a deflection.
“We are wonderful at deflecting and dissembling, and ultimately failing to take responsibility,” Ella-Duncan said.
“The system itself does not accept responsibility. Nor does it accept that there are failures in the system for a particular race of people. That continuing failure to act can only be described as racism.”
The Diamond’s second Indigenous player — Sharon Finnan-White — was in Townsville to work on the free-to-air television broadcast.
She also shared her disappointment with the ABC over the Firebirds’ inability to see a bigger picture.
“There needed to be a bit more cultural sensitivity around the fact that Indigenous Round is really special for our people and Jemma should have been able to be a part of that win,” she said.
“With the rolling subs and the fact that the Firebirds were up by ten at the end of the match, she should have had a chance to hit the court. They can’t make finals, they weren’t even in contention.”
“What was supposed to be a wonderful celebration of our culture — her culture — and a chance for her to showcase her skill and be that only role model for young Indigenous girls to aspire to at this current point in time … turned into something completely sour. It really soured the Firebirds’ win.”
‘She’s inherited a burden that should never have been hers’
While Ella-Duncan and Finnan-White are both happy to see the amount of support the online community has offered Jemma Mi Mi, they expressed real concern about her welfare moving forward.
“I went up to Jemma after the game and I sort of just held her hand and asked if she was okay,” Finnan-White said.
“She shrugged her shoulders and when I asked what had happened, she said ‘I don’t know’.”
“Netball needs to be really careful because it could potentially have a rebound effect in terms of whether Jemma stays. A lot of our girls go to other sports because of bad experiences they’ve had in the netball system.”
Ella-Duncan also echoed Finnan-White’s sentiments.
“Aboriginal athletes from other sports are looking at netball and shaking their head, asking ‘What is going on there?'”
“Jemma is quite proud of her Aboriginality, but she is on a journey on her own and it is unfair. She didn’t ask for that mantle.”
“I think that is one of the impacts of the decision not to play her. Whether that was intended or unintended, now Jemma is seen as the pinup girl for everything that is wrong about netball in Australia.”
“She’s inherited a burden that should never have been hers. And my heart really goes out to her.”
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