In December last year, a select group of players gathered in Kingscliff for the NRL’s annual Indigenous camp.
For the past seven years, the get-together has been held to ensure the game nurtures the next Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis or Preston Campbell.
The mood at these camps is usually buoyant and optimistic. But not this year. The players were angry. Actually, they were furious.
“Because Latrell wasn’t great,” Manly back-rower Joel Thompson says. “Things were really getting to him. He was losing his love of football and we knew that something had to change.”
Latrell Mitchell.Credit:Rhett Wyman
At the time, Latrell Mitchell was in the middle of a raging storm about his playing future.
He’d told the Roosters he wanted to explore his options, they’d abruptly withdrawn their offer, and the subsequent media coverage was intense, as you’d expect for a player of his standing.
Meanwhile, some of the commentary on social media and in the comments section beneath online stories painted him as greedy, arrogant, selfish.
Thompson could see parallels with Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes, who had been bullied out of the AFL to a chorus of booing from away fans.
“My heart was broken after watching The Australian Dream,” Thompson says of the documentary detailing Goodes’ plight. “To see what he went through made you feel sick and we didn’t want this to happen to Latrell. We didn’t want the momentum to build. We’re better than this. The game needs him.”
When the group met with ARL Commissioner Megan Davis during the camp, they voiced their concerns about the way Mitchell was being portrayed.
Davis then phoned chairman Peter V’landys. Within weeks, the players were flying in from all parts of the country for a meeting at a hotel near Sydney Airport.
Latrell Mitchell and his Indigenous All Stars teammates practice the war cry they will perform before the All Stars clash on Saturday night.Credit:NRL Photos
What was said in that meeting remains confidential, and whether V’landys commands any authority over the rugby league media is debatable. But the mere fact it took place highlights the NRL’s attempt to quell rising anger among its Indigenous players.
From the debate about players refusing to sing the national anthem, to Mitchell calling out online racism via his popular social media accounts, the game’s Indigenous players are using their voice like few have before.
And some people, for whatever reason, can’t handle it.
When Mitchell, Walker, Thompson and other players took part in the Invasion Day march in Sydney’s Hyde Park on January 26, the comments under subsequent news stories were vicious.
“Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker have made their money and become famous from playing rugby league, a white man’s game,” posted Deb in response to a Daily Telegraph story. “Hypocrites”.
There was a similar response from a Herald reader after it reported on February 7 that the national anthem had been dropped from the All-Stars match.
Mitchell among his NSW teammates at the singing of the anthem during Origin last year.Credit:Getty Images
“Hypocrites,” fumed Jasmine. “It’s OK to play a non-indigenous sport, take the money, but not stand for the national anthem … REALLY! The game and country who gave you the opportunity for a better life … HYPOCRITES.”
Just to clarify, no Indigenous player has declared they will “not stand” for the anthem.
But they won’t sing it before the All Stars match against the Maori Kiwis on the Gold Coast on Saturday night, which marks the 10th anniversary of the All Stars concept, after the ARL Commission approved its axing.
“We are not making a political statement,” offers Titans prop Ryan James. “But these are uncomfortable conversations we need to have. When you have these uncomfortable conversations, it can bring out the absolute worst in some people.”
Calling it out
Mitchell was eight years old, bouncing around a football field on the NSW Mid North Coast, when he heard it the first time.
“Tackle the little black c—”.
“Yes,” Mitchell says.
His father, Matt, immediately took him off the field.
“He just dragged me off and said, ‘Nope, you aren’t playing and listening to that’,” Mitchell continues. “But it doesn’t start or end with me. Everybody has experiences like that. And it has a knock-on effect.”
Mitchell relayed this story over coffee in Redfern earlier this month. Walker, James Roberts and former Manly cult hero George Rose, who now works for the NRL, were also present.
With his playing future settled at South Sydney, Mitchell appeared content, happy, fit. But he remains vigilant about calling out racism.
Midway through last season, he started naming and shaming people who had sent him appalling racist messages on social media. Given Mitchell has 184,000 Instagram followers, the impact was immediate.
“As soon as you put it out there, people message me asking me to take it down because of the backlash they are copping,” he says. “I was calling it out, but it was fuelling it more. I’ve had 12-year-old girls calling me a black this and that. Where is that coming from? From home. Nobody is born a racist.”
There’s an argument Mitchell should simply shut down his social media accounts if he doesn’t want to be attacked, although Roosters coach Trent Robinson publicly backed him at the time.
“Robbo was good,” Mitchell says. “The Roosters were real supportive.”
Privately, other coaches have told me they would prefer if Mitchell avoided the distraction.
Daily Telegraph reporter Dean Ritchie went further, asking on the Big Sports Breakfast late last year: “Do players need a thicker skin?”
That comment infuriated several Indigenous players, and it was raised in all three meetings with Davis, V’landys and with media representatives. Mitchell raises it in our interview without prompting.
“How do I get a thick enough skin?” Mitchell asks. “I’ve been through all of it at once and it feels like a big tsunami on social media, from the reporters, out of everyone. All I’ve done is stick up for what I believe. I could sit back and let someone call me a black, petrol sniffing dog. By us calling it out, it makes everyone accountable. People can have an opinion about my performance on the field but as soon as I have an opinion about something else, they get real offended. Be quiet. You shouldn’t be saying that … Go f— yourself.”
In 2005, Parramatta back-rower Dean Widders called out Souths captain Bryan Fletcher, who had called him a “black c—” during a match.
“It was a big thing to call it out back then,” Widders, who also works for the NRL, says. “But the thing I learned early was that the behaviour you ignore is the behaviour you accept. For past generations, that’s what Aboriginal people did: they didn’t stand up, they didn’t make a noise.
Dean Widders reacts to Bryan Fletcher in 2005.Credit:Tim Clayton
“But I’d be surprised if you heard any of that stuff on the field now because of the education the game has given its players. Our game is inclusive — and the players have driven it and led it.”
When Ritchie posed the question, Laurie Daley was sitting on the panel as the program’s co-host.
Daley has been coach of the Indigenous team since 2011. He was also on the advisory panel that recommended to the ARL Commission that the anthem should be struck from the All-Stars match.
“Mate, I never sung it [during my career],” Daley says. “But it wasn’t a protest because I just didn’t know a lot about my history. I knew I was Indigenous, but I didn’t know a lot of about the family side of it. It’s only through All Stars that I started to delve deeper into it and understand more about my history and culture.”
Daley has been accused in the past of “not making enough” of his Aboriginality. When NSW centre Timana Tahu walked out of an Origin camp in 2010 after Andrew Johns made a racist remark during a bonding session, he suggested in an interview that Daley had kept his background secret to ensure he kept being picked in NSW and Australian teams.
Daley was deeply insulted by the claim. “I’ve always been proud of who I am,” he says. “I always knew I was Indigenous, but I didn’t feel the need to spruik it because I’ve always been about judging the person by how they act, not who they are.”
As for claims Mitchell should have a thicker skin when it comes to racism, Daley says this: “Why should he turn off his social media when he’s done nothing wrong?”
In the lead-up to State of Origin I last year, after Mitchell, Walker and Josh Addo-Carr calmly answered questions from reporters about not singing the national anthem before the match, Blues coach Brad Fittler asked the trio to address the squad.
He genuinely wanted to learn why they didn’t want to sing. According to those in the rooms, it was a proactive and illuminating discussion.
“I walked away from that meeting knowing for sure that the words in the anthem need to change,” Fittler says.
That’s why he didn’t understand Mitchell’s claim in an interview with NRL.com reporter Tanisha Stanton in December last year that “NSW went real funny on us because we don’t sing the anthem”.
The line was pulled from the interview after NSWRL officials watched the video and chief executive Dave Trodden phoned NRL boss Todd Greenberg.
Mitchell is adamant he was talking generally about the state of NSW.
“Not the NSW team, NSW as a whole,” he says. “It had been put out wrong. It was said that it was about Fittler and the boys. It was nothing like that. People thought I was putting that on the coach, on my teammates. It was nothing like that.”
Fittler declines to comment about what Mitchell may or may not have meant, but he was deeply wounded by the statement.
If anything, the confusion highlights the importance of detail and specifics when reporting Indigenous issues. What exactly did Mitchell mean by that statement? Why wasn’t Fittler directly approached for comment about what was said?
It’s also baffling when you learn that a key part of that interview was removed.
“Do you think that was a contributing factor why you and Cody got dropped?” Stanton asked Mitchell about the anthem issue.
“I don’t want to put it down to that,” Mitchell responded. “There would be some speculation about it, but I am not going to sit here and call someone racist when they’re not.”
Like many people, James Roberts couldn’t understand the intense interest from the rugby league media in Mitchell’s playing future.
“Jai Arrow was in a similar position, he wasn’t getting nothing,” Roberts says of the Titans prop, who has signed with Souths from 2021. “Latrell was looking for the best deal for him and his family.”
Was racism at play in the coverage of Mitchell’s contract negotiations?
The distinction between Arrow and Mitchell is clear: Mitchell is one of the most recognisable players in the game. While many young fans wouldn’t know what Arrow looks like, they mimic Mitchell’s kangaroo-ear try celebration.
Also at play was the fact Mitchell was talking to several clubs, had two managers acting on his behalf, and was being edged out of the Roosters by a shrewd chairman in Nick Politis only weeks after winning the premiership for a second time.
It was a significant story and it was reflected in the public’s interest: several stories about Mitchell were as well-read on the Herald’s website as stories about the country’s bushfire crisis, which could be accessed for free.
“He just got hammered though,” Walker insists. “How much he was reported on was just unfair. It wasn’t warranted.”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about the coverage wasn’t the stories themselves but the reaction on social media — something over which the mainstream media has no control.
Mitchell was popular with Roosters fans, pictured here in the lead-up to last year’s grand final.Credit:Getty Images
“The thing with Indigenous issues is we need to be careful around the narrative,” Widders says. “The context in which we tell the stories. I don’t think our reporters want to tell a bad story, but they need to understand there are people out there who will interpret it the wrong way or look at it through a racist lens. We’re trying to educate those people, not divide.
“When you’re an Indigenous sportsperson, with a profile, you are looked upon as our only voice. There aren’t many ways we can grab wider Australia’s attention. It comes from our rugby league players.”
Last year, in a private function room at the NSW State Theatre, I ran into Widders. We were there for the premiere of The Final Quarter, a second Goodes documentary that was being released as part of the Sydney Film Festival.
Also present that night was AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, whose office had issued a long-winded and demonstrably late apology to Goodes that afternoon.
“What happened to Goodsey would never happen in our game,” Widders said that night.
When I speak to Widders for this article, I ask what he meant by the comment.
“We wouldn’t do that in our game: we don’t bully anyone for any reason,” he explains. “At the time Adam Goodes was playing, we had Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis. They were revered. We would never bully them. That’s not part of the rugby league DNA. Our fans would see right through that.”
Still, rugby league has a long way to go when some people consider it a “white man’s game”.
It shares a long and proud history with its Indigenous players, as colleague Roy Masters has observed before: “It was the first football code in Australia to select an Aboriginal player in a national team when Lionel Morgan became a Kangaroo in 1960, eight years before he was counted in the population. Arthur Beetson was appointed Australian captain five years after the constitutional change”.
But, unlike other generations of players, the current crop are using their voice like never before — like sitting in a meeting room eyeballing media heavyweights.
“We turned up in shorts that day — all the media guys were in mad suits and looking sharp,” Thompson smiles. “But you know what we did? We spoke straight from the heart. And when we see a brother suffering like Latrell, with his character being ripped apart, it affects all of us. There’s a deep-rooted trauma that goes through our people and we want to look after our own as best we can.”
Mitchell has a powerful voice but with that comes a responsibility to use it judiciously. Because people are listening.
Last year, the Indigenous team chose him to lead the war cry before the All Stars match, standing up as the other players took a knee in a circle around him.
Latrell Mitchell of the Indigenous All Stars leads the Indigenous war cry in 2019.Credit:Getty
“I was kneeling down and I looked at his legs and he had goose bumps,” Walker recalls. “It made it feel real. The silence of the crowd … I’m getting goose bumps now.”
And he does. Then you look at Mitchell’s arm. He’s got goose bumps, too.
“This isn’t for me, it’s not for us, it’s for our kids,” Mitchell says. “And our people before us. If we don’t start now, it will never happen. And this is the perfect time because now we are being heard.”
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