Why Indigenous leaders like Buddy and Latrell are too much for some Australians to accept

There’s an easy bit and there’s a hard bit. The easy bit is to celebrate.

This weekend, two iconic Indigenous footballers take centre stage. In the AFL grand final, the Sydney Swans’ Lance Franklin will have every eye on him as the Bloods take on Geelong. Although the Swans are underdogs against the minor premiers, Franklin is all overdog.

When he sprints into space and knocks over defenders to take a mark, he is marking his territory. Even when he minces back to position, hands on hips, he still threatens and magnetises opponents – to the point where in the preliminary final, Collingwood’s Brayden Maynard thought it necessary to wring the baby oil from Franklin’s arms. It resembled a ritual of worship, Maynard the religious seeker and Franklin the indifferent statue.

Anyone who thinks Franklin’s history-making nine-year contract has needed a premiership flag to justify it can’t have been watching many of the 158 games he has played for the Swans. His 467 goals for the club, taking him past 1000 in his career in those heady scenes on the SCG earlier this season, are only one fraction of his positive effect.

Franklin won’t match Tony Lockett’s record of 1360 goals only because the full-forward does so much more now. Lockett’s job was to mark the ball and kick it between the sticks. Franklin does that, but also harasses and tackles opponents, ferrets for contested ball, directs the Swans’ attack and mentors young teammates.

Wherever Franklin takes his massive frame, he brings two or three opponents, always a diversion, creating space for others. Tom Papley is an All-Australian small forward thanks to his big brother Franklin, whose presence automatically gives the Swans a numerical advantage.

Lance Franklin and Latrell Mitchell are peas in a pod in the AFL and NRL respectively.Credit:Getty

He doesn’t have to touch the ball to be worth two or three players to the Swans. That’s his salary paid right there. He has been instrumental in the Swans remaining a club of winners as most of their premiership players retired and a new generation moved in.

Franklin’s charisma has only one parallel in rugby league. Just as Franklin can easily be your favourite AFL player even if you’re not one of the Swans faithful, Latrell Mitchell is the neutral fan’s NRL footballer.

You don’t need to know anything about league to appreciate Mitchell’s silken touch, his vision and creativity, not to mention his sheer strength and agility. You can have a shameless man crush on Mitchell without ever being a Rabbitohs fan. He transforms every game he plays in, and if he is not the very best in an NRL period rich in great players, he is close, and there are not many you would call artists. Mitchell surpasses everyone else for his chutzpah and his knack for making rugby league beautiful.

Which is never to leave aside Mitchell’s personal courage. Moments after Souths eliminated the Roosters from this year’s finals, Mitchell looked around the cat-calling crowd and said, ‘F— off, f— off, f— off, f— off.’ He might have been speaking for 15 out of 16 NRL followers.

Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch

Here we get to the hard bit. Mitchell had been abused by Roosters supporters for two weeks. It might have been for his very poor head-high hit on Joseph Manu in 2021, or it might have been because he’d left them for their No.1 enemies. But AFL fans always excused their booing of Adam Goodes as ‘respect’ for an opponent or ‘justice’ for his supposed staging for free kicks. Goodes was the only player booed for these reasons, and Mitchell alone has faced such direct personal abuse in the NRL. Who could seriously deny the player’s own statement that this abuse included, and was driven by, racial undertones?

The celebration comes easily because these Indigenous stars are undisputed giants of sports we love. Celebration comes even easier because it costs us non-Indigenous Australians precisely nothing. In fact the celebration, as with the codes’ Indigenous rounds and so much conspicuous goodwill towards First Nations people, might have a counterproductive effect because they enable us to pat ourselves on the back for our spirit of inclusiveness and reassure ourselves that we are good people because our favourite players are Indigenous. Little else is asked of us. We signal our virtue on the big day, at the footy, and then go back to ordinary life knowing that we are good anti-racist people.

The long history of racial discrimination in Australian sport, highlighted again this week by the distressing – depressing – episodes allegedly involving Hawthorn’s treatment of its Indigenous players, has shown little sign of abating while we self-soothe with Indigenous jerseys, welcomes to country, apologies and statues of Nicky Winmar. In other words, doing all the easy part has done little to address the hard part.

The hard part is professional clubs living up to their rhetoric of treating their players – regardless of race – as human beings. The Hawthorn allegations echo those at Adelaide and Collingwood to the point where we can call this treatment of Indigenous players institutional. Institutional change is so much harder than symbolic. The hard part is to understand and help players balance their professional and private lives, not just rip them out of their families to reward them with the ‘bounties’ of non-Indigenous culture. It’s what Australia used to do. If it is doing this still, it shows how hard real change can be.

Sport pays lip service to its Indigenous heroes, but does the motivation come from an entirely selfless place?Credit:The Age

The hard part for those clubs is recognising more important goals than winning.

The hard part is kicking out every spectator who abuses players racially. I know the sports and the venues say they do it, but they don’t. You can go to the Souths and the Swans matches this weekend and hear racially-motivated abuse of Latrell Mitchell and Lance Franklin. Two proud men who carry themselves as leaders are just too much for some to cope with.

The easy part is to believe that the signage saying racism has no place does all the work; the easy part is to leave the confrontation to someone else. The hard part for the non-Indigenous majority is to really turn ourselves inside-out and question our complicity. The hardest part is to ask honestly if we love players like Franklin and Mitchell so dearly not as a rejection of racism so much as a confession of guilt, not a fresh start but in some subterranean way tied up with this country’s history. The question cannot be evaded.

For both the AFL and the NRL, advances in the nurturing and showcasing of Indigenous talent have been so considerable that they have blinded many to what lies a layer of skin beneath the surface. Clubs, fans and institutions continue to treat players as cattle, as commodified stock.

Commentators continue to praise Indigenous players as possessing some kind of mystical ‘instinct’, thinking they are paying compliments without realising how close they are treading towards ideas best consigned to the distant past. Entire sporting communities will gather this weekend around symbols of Indigenous pride and the superlative contestants, rejoicing in all the easy stuff. Then the curtain comes down, the clubs recede into their off-season shadows, and the ugly stuff, so ingrained in Australian culture that it is invisible, again cries out to be recognised. Every time we do something easy, it is one hard task left undone. Until these problems are addressed and fixed, we will continue to be shocked by what has allegedly happened at Hawthorn and the other clubs, and we will keep having to ask ourselves why, when we are so good, we keep doing so much that is bad.

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