I still remember being at the first Indigenous All-Stars Game in 2010, devised by one of the game’s greats, Preston Campbell, a Nucoorilma man of the Gamilaaroy nation. I was in that corner where Wendall Sailor went over for the first try then pulled out the corner post to play the didgeridoo while his teammates did shake-a-leg around him.
I screamed and cried. It wasn’t about the try or winning. It was the spectacle of Black agency in that very arena: the football field. And by that, I mean the act of removing the signpost – the one thing that marked the boundary of which they were not to cross – and completely reconfiguring its meaning in the Blackest way possible.
I know Blackfullas who have played in the Indigenous All-Stars team who talk of what being part of that team has meant for their identity beyond the game. And it is a Black man we have to thank for that, not the game itself. For we have long known, whether it is the local country league team or at professional levels, that we have never been on an equal playing field: it has never been the great leveller that they claim. The recent release of the documentary ‘The Final Quarter’ at The Sydney Festival, which retold through archival footage, the treatment of Adam Goodes was a powerful reminder of the brutality of the game upon Black men’s bodies.
But yet here we are: Indigenous All-Stars and NSW Blues representatives, Biripi man Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker of the Bundjalung and Yuin nations, who had prior to game one of NRL’s State of Origin series declared they would not sing the Australian national anthem axed from the Blues squad for Game 2 in Perth.
Many suggested that they were going to be punished for being too outspoken, or as we would say, too Black. I mean, Blackfullas know we can ‘get away’ with being Black only so long as they are winning, so long as it works for them.
Former NSW Blues player Timana Tahu, recently testified about his experience with the NSWRL where he courageously stood in defence of Greg Inglis (a member of the opposing side) on the principle of making a stand against racism. According to Tahu, so-called ‘immortal’ Andrew Johns made references to QLD Indigenous players, namely Greg Inglis, as “Black c**ts”,... jokingly of course.
It was Tahu that took a stand for his people, not the game, and it was Tahu who paid the price. I reckon Tahu’s teammates are lucky he didn’t out those who stayed silent and those who were too gutless to stand with him. Because for me, it was the silence of his teammates that was most deafening.
The comment made by Tahu in his NITV column last week that suggested the anthem boycott may have influenced the selector’s decision to axe Mitchell and Walker ( he literally said: “yes and no”) was swiftly labelled as “inflammatory” and so “seriously misguided” that they were “on a completely different page to the entire organisation”.
The hysterical “overreaction” didn’t end there, with the NSWRL Chief Executive Officer also publicly declaring that Tahu would be dumped from his role in helping develop the next generation of Blues. The fact that Andrew ‘The Black C’ Johns has a role in the training squad is a testament to the values of the organisation that is the NSWRL. What that shows us is that yes, indeed, the NSWRL will punish Black men for speaking freely about their own experiences – which is kind of contrary to the point they and others have been trying to make in insisting that Mitchell and Walker’s omission was all about form.
It also speaks to the reason why Blackfullas are refusing to sing a song about being ‘free’ in this place – it is very clear that they aren’t. In fact, NSW Blues winger Josh Addo-Carr, a proud Wiradjuri and Gunggandji man, is reported to have been banned by the NSWRL from further commenting on this affair.
Yet, if we take the word of a recent NRL.com article, it would appear that the coaching staff have not remained silent.
In one of the most disturbing takes on Mitchell’s dumping titled, ‘The seven moments that cost Latrell Mitchell his NSW jersey’, we are told of an accidental encounter at Star Casino between Mitchell and friends with the NSW Origin team before heading off to Perth. We are told that the NSW coaching staff embraced Mitchell and spent an hour with him. I’m not a gambler, but I’m fairly certain it wasn’t Mitchell and his mates that leaked the story about that encounter.
But of greater concern are the ‘receipts’ that Michael Chammas provides in terms of those seven big moments.
The article prefaces Mitchell as risky: the signs of which were supposedly apparent last year when NSW won the series. Chammas also claims that “NSW don’t know what he [Mitchell] is going through”: rhetoric which casts doubt over Mitchell’s emotional stability. But when we finally get to those big seven reasons, not one references any comparisons in player stats; actual errors; or even his sin-binning in which Mitchell desperately tried to stop the opposition from scoring.
Instead Chammas finds seven examples in 80 minutes of football where Mitchell apparently didn’t support his teammates: where he wasn’t in the right position; where he left teammates vulnerable in defence; where he wasn’t urgent enough. Through this narrative the Blackfulla is constructed as someone who isn’t part of the team, who isn’t loyal and trustworthy, but who is lazy, unpredictable, unreliable.
What a gift to a 21-year-old Aboriginal man who played such a critical role in returning the State of Origin silverware to New South Wales last year.
But this betrayal is not unfamiliar to us, nor are the racialised discourses that emerge as a result of white fragility. It doesn’t, however, lessen the violence of such attacks against the character, integrity, capability and masculinity of these Black men.
We saw it in the case of Goodes and we also witnessed it in the case of Kris Rallah-Baker. When Black men muster the strength to speak out about the harms they experience, they are publicly humiliated and their actual contributions to the game or to the profession are routinely dismissed. And just like the NSW team of 2010, much of the nation simply watches on rather than takes a firm stand together against it.
Black men have long put their bodies on the line for a country that refuses to see them as human, as strong, as capable, as caring, or competent. Those bodies weather the brunt of that violence everyday – and the injuries incurred are far more damaging than the physical injuries inflicted on the field. Blackfullas’ contributions to this game, much like our contributions to this country, have long been under-valued.
Perhaps it is time to consider going beyond a boycott of the anthem and boycott a game that has continued to betray Blackfullas who have given so much to it, at least until they reconfigure those very boundaries that continue to constrain our brothers both on and off the field.
– Dr Chelsea Bond is one half of the Wild Black Women radio program (with Angelina Hurley) on Brisbane’s 98.9FM. She is an academic and writer, focusing on content about Black women, for Black women. Follow Chelsea @drcbond