Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, April 2007.
By Chris Munro
APPARENTLY it’s time Nathan Merritt made a toast. According to Sydney Morning Herald reporter Alex Brown, the Indigenous try-scoring machine has some valuable historical lessons to learn.
A recent article by Brown read more like a lecture to Merritt himself, aptly entitled ‘Nathan, it’s time you made a toast: here’s to you Jackie Robinson.’ (May 5, 2007).
Somewhere amidst the media ruckus that followed Merritt’s audible thoughts that his Aboriginality may have played a part in his omission from the City side, reporter Brown took it upon himself to enlighten us all on the state of race relations not only in the sporting world, but also in the wider community.
Brown compared Merritt’s apparent ‘finger-pointing’ to the ‘quiet and dignified’ approach of 1940/50s Afro-American baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who tackled ‘real injustices’ pertaining to racism.
And according to Brown, if Merritt plays his cards right, we all someday might enjoy a permanent fixture on the NRL calendar known as ‘Nathan Merritt’ day, in honour of his ‘strong, silent’ approach to racism in the game.
Brown begins as many do, believing modern Aboriginal people are equal and free. He writes, “But here’s the difference: whereas you ply your trade as a free man with entitlement to the same pay and privileges as your contemporaries – Robinson’s career began in the under funded, under appreciated Negro Leagues.”
Brown’s attempt to compare Australia’s race record to that of our American counterparts is full of holes, both on and off the sporting field. To suggest that being offered equal opportunity promotes success or ‘fairness’, especially in an Indigenous Australian sense, is far-fetched to say the least.
Brown prattles on and suggests Jackie Robinson’s historic ‘call-up’ to the white Major League was somehow a ‘major turning point in the broader civil rights movement’. And somewhere in this eyebrow raising rant, possibly cryptically, there’s apparently a lesson to be learnt for the Souths’ Nathan Merritt.
Thank you Mr Brown… really, where would we be without your enlightening life lessons on race and the timeless ‘fair-go’ chestnut?
God knows pinning your argument upon the framework of an Afro-American sportsman from the late 40s is sure to hit a chord with all and sundry, no really, the similarities are scary.
The context in which Merritt’s comments apparently ‘insinuated race played a role’ and ‘resorted to witch hunts’ is worth mentioning too, as this is a fact clearly lost on Alex Brown and the wider mainstream media.
To quote Merritt from The Daily Telegraph in late April paints an entirely different picture to the fervour that followed, as when prompted about the issue of race in relation to his omission by a reporter, Merritt simply answered, “I wonder whether it was more a Souths thing or a racial thing? I just wondered whether it was a racial thing. But I want to put it behind me.”
To attack the man’s reputation for having an opinion, or better put, a pondering, is dare I say it, ‘un-Australian’. Or does that rule not apply when he’s an outspoken Aboriginal?
Now Alex, I’ve searched high-and-low, partaken in feverish brainstorming sessions and even indulged in a spot of meditation in a fruitless effort to uncover where, at any stage, Merritt’s comments translate into ‘finger-pointing’ or even remotely manifest themselves into ‘a witch hunt’.
Don’t worry though Mr Brown, examining quotes in context and employing good old-fashioned common sense never got anyone anywhere, right?
In an unwitting attempt to exemplify the sort of outward racism that we apparently don’t experience in Australian sport, Brown re-tells the opposition’s reaction to Jackie Robinson’s first game as thus, “In a game against Philadelphia, players from the opposition dugout hurled abuse, calling Robinson “nigger” and demanding he go back to the cotton fields.”
Let me then share with you the Australian translation for the 2 percent of the population that haven’t been to a local footy match or have simply been living under a mushroom for their entire existence, ‘Oi Boong, piss off back to ya humpie.’ And if you think it doesn’t happen in sport, go and watch Anthony Mundine’s next fight in just about any pub or club in the country next month.
I can’t say with any confidence whether the reporter in question has ever attended a game of grassroots league or AFL in the last six months, where Indigenous footballers have been on the pitch. But to simply stand on the sidelines and listen to the boundless hilarity of the ‘jokes’ that follow any possession gathered by an Aboriginal player, might open his eyes a tad, but hey… it’s only a joke isn’t it, only a blackfella.
To further suggest that the vein of racial vilification Robinson copped back in 1947 is a thing of the past in Australia is equally as blinkered and dismissive.
I haven’t played in, nor attended as a spectator, a game in which either myself or one my Indigenous teammates hasn’t suffered a racial slur at the hands of a beanie-clad, bourbon swilling dead-beat from the safety of the sidelines. It is just a part of the game we have to live with, and a hardship players like Merritt have grown-up with.
Yet one way in which Aboriginal footballers are ‘entitled to the same privileges of our contemporaries’ as Brown so pragmatically puts it, is when these intellectual giants decide to ditch the can, don a jersey and come over the other side of the fence.
Because out on the deck, everyone’s fair game.
If Brown is also suggesting that the Australian Rugby League (ARL) hierarchy is innocent of the same, maybe he could better his turn-of-phrase by writing a feature on the growing number of Aboriginal league teams that have been expelled from group competitions by the Country Rugby League (CRL), with little or no valid explanation… Glendale being the latest casualty in the Newcastle Hunter League (NHRL) .
Perhaps their plight could’ve been avoided if they’d only taken the sound advice of Brown and approached their head-scratching expulsions with ‘a quieter, more dignified approach.’
This approach of Robinson’s, as Brown writes ‘won over an entire nation by tackling ‘real’ injustices and inequalities’ back in 1947, and suggests this is the tack to be used in the ‘wider fight to eliminate racism in Australia’.
Interestingly, while Robinson was grappling with such grave injustices on the baseball diamond in 47, white Australia was precisely two decades away from even recognising Indigenous people as a countable percentage of the population, yet that still didn’t stop them from fighting abroad for a country that didn’t support or recognise them as citizens.
Yes, Merritt was extremely unlucky to not be selected for the City Origin side, but if selectors were basing team positions on form, they either made a mistake, or are just plain stupid. 29 tries in 31 games… that statistic surely speaks for itself. So why the omission you ask? Well like most questions pertaining to Indigenous affairs, they remain unanswered.
Mainstream media have since compared Merritt to Anthony Mundine, not only as a brilliant footballer, but more-so for being ‘a loudmouth’ in voicing his opinion on league selections.
But seriously, who could honestly look their mother in the eye and say Mundine wasn’t the best five-eighth in the game while in his prime at St George? The great Detective Frost would even be challenged to his lofty limits in explaining the mystery of Mundine’s continual omissions.
Understandably the man himself was perplexed as it seemingly wasn’t his scintillating form at the time, but maybe an Aboriginal man with something to say was too steep a trail for some to climb.
I sometimes feel like I’m watching an episode of The Sopranos here, as every time a player speaks out against NSW selectors, he’s bashed by the media, especially if he ‘pulls the race card’ as some journalists have so merrily put it.
Merritt was even summoned to a ‘meeting’ with NSW chairman of selectors Bob ‘The Boss’ McCarthy at an inner-city corner café for ‘coffee’.
Needless to say the hit was called off and much to my delight Merritt stubbornly refused to back-track from his initial ponderings on a race related omission. But unlike Jackie Robinson and the warped advice of Alex Brown, I suggest Merritt and other Indigenous players don’t take ‘a quieter approach to selection’.
Merritt like Mundine before him was clearly been robbed as far as representative footy goes, and if it’s not their Aboriginality that’s the problem, then what is it? Because it’s certainly not form.
There I said it… and am now seriously investigating a stint in witness protection.