Does Latrell Mitchell abuse prove progress over 30 years is only skin deep?

On April 17, 1993, Nicky Winmar and his St Kilda teammate Gilbert McAdam walked onto Victoria Park, land of the Wurundjeri people, the home ground of their opponents Collingwood, to check the playing surface before their VFL game.

Members of the crowd told them they would kill them and their families and rape their mothers. They said they would hang Winmar and McAdam from a tree. When those two Indigenous players ran onto the field half an hour later, they were showered with spit and a cup of urine. During play, they received racial abuse from Collingwood players, and after the game from the Collingwood club president.

Almost 30 years to the day after that event, Latrell Mitchell was allegedly racially abused by a “fan” at Thursday’s NRL game at Penrith’s stadium, which is on Dharug land. Mitchell was not sprayed with urine or threatened with hanging, and nor did anyone say they would rape his mother. So there you go, Australia, give yourself a pat on the back for 30 years of improvement.

The nameless ones who abused Winmar and McAdam have vanished into deserved anonymity. Winmar has a statue immortalising his gesture after that match, of raising his guernsey to show his pride in the colour of his skin. He also blew the crowd kisses, turned his backside to them and drummed on it, and, as he raised his guernsey, shouted back at them: “I’m black and I’m proud to be black.”

Latrell Mitchell has also taken on the role of a leader and the pain of a lightning rod. On behalf of his Indigenous brothers and sisters, he has stood in front of rugby league crowds and dared them to let loose the prejudices that lie beneath the surface. He has had particular problems from supporters of the Sydney Roosters, his former club, and at Penrith. On Thursday night, the alleged racial abuser was a crossover, who had come to Penrith in Roosters colours to shout filth at Mitchell. The abuser was allegedly a minor, the same factor that so upset Adam Goodes when he was abused by a Collingwood supporter at a football game in Melbourne in 2013. If kids are doing it, does it mean they’re too young to know better or just that they’re too young to know how to hide it? Goodes was left with the latter feeling, that if children are emulating their elders, then change is a lot further away than he had hoped.

Nicky Winmar’s famous gesture in 1993, and Latrell Mitchell during this year’s All Stars game.  Credit:Wayne Ludbey, Getty Images

Since 1993, the power balance has changed a little. The Collingwood fans had the freedom of their home turf to say and do what they wanted. In football grounds now, a racial abuser risks being filmed, being called out by other spectators, being arrested by security staff, and being banned from future entry. Good on you, professional sports, you are so much better than you used to be.

If there has been real change, it has been wrought by individuals such as Winmar, Mitchell, Adam Goodes, Eddie Betts, Josh Addo-Carr, Donnell Wallam and many others in Australian professional sport who have refused to tolerate open racism. They have earned support, not immediate but eventual, from administrators, from law-enforcement agencies and, most importantly, from ordinary fans, among whom the centre of gravity has – or seems to have – shifted. As leaders, those players have borne the cost. Standing up against racism might leave a legacy of gradual social change, and it might earn statues and awards and praise, but it has not enabled those footballers to spend their lives patting themselves on the back for making the world a better place. When they hear what happened to Latrell Mitchell on March 9, 2023, their overriding response is despair.

Why is that? After decades of education and symbolism and changes in policy, the incident on Thursday leaves the question of how much really has improved. The surface is better, but when you hear the words used on Mitchell, you understand those who contend that the only thing that has really improved is the surface. Actions like Winmar’s have led to a change in behaviour – but what are the instincts and emotions that that change is masking? Have they really moved, or are we condemning ourselves to constantly repeating this cycle, cracking down on outward expressions while the inner hatreds remain?

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