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Men, racism and football

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The controversial exit of Timana Tahu from the New South Wales State of Origin team puts race squarely on the front pages of our newspapers.

What seems to have happened is this. The NSW team is made up of individuals from a bunch of teams. A bonding session was organised to get the guys to band together. The enemy was set up as something to hate, so that the NSW Blues could band together against a common enemy. Andrew Johns, the team’s assistant coach, seems to have described one member of the Queensland team as a “black c***”, using a word describing part of the female anatomy.

There have been some similar events in the recent past. Recently we saw in the Hey hey it’s Saturday episode a supposedly comical skit featuring black and white minstrels.

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Many Australians couldn’t see why the American singer Harry Connick Jr was grossly offended. This includes a large proportion of contributors to this online journal.

Connick had to explain at length that “it is no longer acceptable to portray African-Americans as buffoons”. As I explained in my article, such portrayal of black people was part of a vicious regime which included fire bombing of civil rights activists and the stringing up of blacks for no particular reason. And white people did this without fear of retribution.

It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be this time. Tahu has said that there is persistent racism in the NSW camp; and, to him, these comments were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tahu thought it over, and decided to make a stand. He was clearly hurt and distressed. Listen to young people these days. What they want most of all is respect. Where is the respect  for others from these boofheads in Rugby League?

Some people might be surprised to hear that footballers are sensitive. The State of Origin matches in particular are well-known for a rugged, perhaps violent, display of masculine energy. Academics have pointed out that the media in fact encourage the built-up tension and bravado that precedes the match.

Rugby League is thought by some to be a rough game. Indeed, some of its proponents talk enthusiastically about it as a “body contact” sport. Such claims are easy to ridicule, but close physical contact is an undeniable part of the game. Men walk out onto the field expecting to run the risk of bodily harm.

Sledging, or slanging off, other players is also part of the game. In attacking a player it seems common to mention birthplace (this is more or less what State of Origin is supposed to be about, apparently). And it doesn’t take too much imagination to work around to the colour of a person’s skin.

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Footballers do give each other nicknames. I suppose in my brief and not very wonderful football career I was called Westy. Others have been called Choc, or Ginger, or other things based on their appearance.

If Johns called Inglis a black c***, this is reprehensible. That’s very different from calling someone Smithy. Johns supposedly has apologised and “now understands” what he did. Well, that’s what he said. Perhaps he does, now he has had to confront the consequences of his actions. The use of female anatomy as an insult is very troubling. And these people want to be models for our boys to imitate? Many of us in New South Wales would be ashamed to be associated with this behaviour. Who would have thought that Queenslanders were more tolerant than we are? The facts speak for themselves.

I don’t believe this proves that “all Australians are racist”. Some research suggests that Australians - at least in the past - were less aware of race than Americans. In Jim Crow Downunder? African American encounters with White Australia, 1942-1945 authors Sean Brawly and Chris Dixon have this to say (my emphasis):

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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