Latrell Mitchell was a beloved figure when he burst on to the NRL scene.
He still is, for the most part. If you love footy, you can’t help but adore Latrell’s brilliance.
There’s been cowardly online trolls, yet those racist keyboard warriors are vastly outweighed by his admirers.
But there’s a significant sub-category of sporting fans, as there are general citizens, who are known all too well by accomplished Indigenous people.
Those who are happy enough to see a black man succeed – provided that they keep quiet while doing it. Just stick to footy – shut up about the Indigenous stuff.
As Mitchell has grown in stature and raised his voice for Indigenous Australians, he has frequently become the target of uncomfortable ire.
“All of us have experienced that,” Stan Grant, the acclaimed Indigenous broadcaster and a relative of Mitchell’s, tells Wide World of Sports.
“It’s a hard conversation for Australia to have, to face up to its history, to face up to its responsibilities, to face up to the ongoing suffering of Indigenous people in Australia today.
“We are the people who die 10 years young, we are the people who are locked up in the greatest numbers and have the worst outcomes in health and education, employment and housing.
“When we talk about this, we’re not talking about some abstract idea; we’re talking about our families. So for me and Latrell and others, this is our families – and our families are connected.”
Grant has deep ties in the NRL. His family connects with Mitchell’s on the Goolagong side. Josh Addo-Carr and Jack Wighton are fellow Wiradjuri men. Blake Ferguson’s grandfather and Grant’s are first cousins, though more like brothers.
Grant has a deep admiration for how these young footballers represent their culture while starring on the field, knowing full well that being outspoken puts a target on their backs. Mitchell revealed last week that he had seriously considered quitting rugby league due to the deluge of online racial abuse he had faced.
Mitchell’s appearance with the Aboriginal flag in an NRL advertisement was howled down earlier this season. He, Addo-Carr and Cody Walker copped backlash for refusing to sing the national anthem before the opening State of Origin game last season. When the anthem was omitted from this year’s Indigenous All Stars match, the wringing of white hands began again.
They were peaceful gestures of Indigenous identity that hurt no one, yet the backlash was intense.
“There’s both great goodwill and support, and there is hostility; people who just don’t want to know, or who say politics and sport shouldn’t mix,” Grant said.
“And we know the abuse that Indigenous players can get. We saw that with Latrell and Cody and others when they made the stance about the anthem.
“There’s a huge price to pay sometimes for that and they’re young men, dealing with both the pressures of playing a game but also the responsibilities of that leadership. It’s a big, big burden to put on young shoulders and I think the way that they manage that is incredible.
“I think it also says that we need, as a game and as a society, to support those young men; and women, because increasingly Indigenous women are playing the game too, who are accepting that same responsibility. We need to be able to support them in that.”
Be proud to be Aboriginal – Indigenous Round: Josh Addo-Carr & Cody Walker
Mitchell has become a lightning rod for racially-tinged criticism. There is extreme scrutiny on everything that he does; how he trains, how much he weighs, what car he drives.
“He’s a big target. Look at Adam Goodes. When you make yourself a big target, you’re going to get a big response and that’s not always going to be pretty,” Grant said.
“He’s a young man and he’s already achieved so much. He’s played for his country, he’s played for NSW, he’s won premierships.
“He’s backed himself to change clubs and leave a club he was very secure at and very successful at to chase his dream, that he believes he could be a great fullback. And to go to South Sydney, which is a club that has such a rich, deep history and has such a connection to Indigenous people.
“I think it’s remarkable, the way that he’s managed that. I think it’s a tribute to him. And yes, he has faced some hostility, the online trolls and those things, but he’s bigger than that.
“And we give him support, I think the Indigenous community recognises the value of someone like Latrell, who’s a young man who’s putting himself out there and having really difficult conversations and making sure that his stature in the game means something.
“Life would be a lot easier for Latrell if he didn’t do that. If he just said, ‘I’m going to be a football player and nothing else’, I’m sure life would be a bit easier. But he wouldn’t be the man that he is and he wouldn’t be honest with himself and he wouldn’t be challenging us all to look at ourselves.
“When you look at this young man in his early 20s, I think it’s a credit to him.”
Johnathan Thurston’s indigenous round special
Johnathan Thurston, the future Immortal who has grown into a significant Aboriginal voice, feels that rugby league has done a good job in listening and learning about Indigenous issues; certainly more so than the AFL. He is proud of outspoken young Indigenous players like Latrell Mitchell.
But the backlash faced by Mitchell proves that there is some way to go.
“I’m very proud of where the game is at and certainly where the game is going,” Thurston told Wide World of Sports.
“But we are still seeing those small instances, like the Latrell instances, and hopefully we can stamp that out.
“And no other NRL player, or AFL or any other sports person, whether it’s male or female, has to go through what the great Adam Goodes went through.”
Escalating the burden on players is the dynamic of the modern news cycle, so often fuelled by division and outrage. Often the message, an earnest message about inequalities faced by Indigenous people, is drowned out by the noise.
“Anything like not singing the anthem is going to be a flashpoint. It’s an obvious thing that people gravitate to, it’s one of those culture war issues. ‘Oh, you don’t sing the anthem, therefore you don’t like Australia, or you don’t like all Australians, or you think we’re all racists’. We go to extremes very quickly,” Grant said.
“It’s like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee; ‘Oh, look at him, he’s disrespecting his country’. Well actually, when you listen to what Colin Kaepernick has to say, taking a knee was the greatest respect for his country. He wasn’t turning his back on the flag, he was taking a knee saying, ‘I love my country and I believe it can be better’.
“I think the same applies for the boys with the anthem. They’re standing there proudly, they weren’t turning their back. They were standing there with their teammates, some of their teammate were singing and they supported their teammates as they sang, and their teammates supported them as they chose not to.
“Isn’t that what you do in a democracy? Isn’t that what freedom is meant to be about, that we should be able to have these conversations? We should be able to say, ‘That anthem doesn’t speak to us and we have every right in a democracy to stand there and make a respectful protest’. That’s what it should be about.
“Cody, Latrell, Josh – these boys, when they decide to take that stance, their life would be a lot easier if they didn’t. Imagine the burden of having to go out there and having to play on the biggest stage with the highest expectation, the highest scrutiny, and you also have to carry the burden of representing your people and showing the courage to take a political stance at the same time. That is a lot to put on those shoulders.
“Their life would be a lot easier if they didn’t but again, they wouldn’t be the men they are if they didn’t take that stance. We should support them in that and allow ourselves to have a conversation. If people disagree with them taking that stance, that’s fine; disagree and let’s have the conversation about it. Let’s try to work our way through it, rather than shutting it down or branding these boys as being unpatriotic.”
Our Turn to Shine – Indigenous Round Luke Carroll
Being Indigenous is not a choice. And ongoing inequality is not acceptable.
Grant can’t imagine an Australia without racism; it has been baked into society from top to bottom ever since European settlement. But he does want greater understanding; for Australians to have hard conversations in which they listen to and accept the realities faced by Indigenous people.
NRL Indigenous Round provides that opportunity. And even within the confines of rugby league, there is an uncomfortable truth.
Even a superstar footballer, when it comes down to it, can not expect to be treated equally by a significant percentage of his compatriots. Even in a sport-mad nation where footballers are revered, many fans just want them to shut up and play, when there is so much that must be said about the plight of their people. So much that must be heard.
“This is real to us. This isn’t a statistic, it isn’t something you read about. It is real and it’s a hard conversation to have with Australia because it’s not necessarily real to most Australians, who live great lives in Australia,” Grant said.
“For them, Australia is an incredible country; and it is, I would never diminish the incredible privilege we have living in a country like Australia. But it’s not the same for all of us and they are really hard discussions to have.
“But I would also say, and I think this is really important, that the people who abused people like Adam Goodes, who booed Adam Goodes, the online trolls who attacked Latrell – do they really speak for us? I’d like to think no.
“I’d like to think Australians are people who get out and support people like Adam and Latrell and Cody Walker and JT. There are a lot of people out there with goodwill who want to support us and I’d like to focus on that, rather than the uglier side.”