Now that emotions have been tempered a little in the wake of last week’s racism drama surrounding South Sydney star Latrell Mitchell at Penrith, can we accept that banning a teenage boy from rugby league games for life would be over the top in the extreme?
There is no place for racism in rugby league, or in any area of life for that matter. It continues to baffle me that we deal with such matters in 2023, yet here we are.
Indeed, Mitchell should not come to Penrith and be subjected to what is alleged to have happened last Thursday night. That, surely, we can all agree on.
And it is understandable that emotions were high in the 24 hours that followed the incident at the foot of the Mountains.
On the night, Souths coach Jason Demetriou erupted in support of his player, and called for a life ban for the individual who allegedly made the remark.
The next day, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo called a press conference and labelled the incident unacceptable, promising action would be taken.
Souths CEO Blake Solly issued a long, detailed statement condemning what happened, and said the “strongest possible action” needed to be taken.
The rugby league fan base, and the wider community, also piled on, with this ‘life ban’ term continually thrown about.
Penrith were criticised in some corners for not being louder in their criticism, with the club’s only official response coming via a short statement on the night.
Truth is it was the most sensible response of all. The old ‘wait for the full story’ scenario may not be popular on Twitter, but it’s the right thing to do. The club was aware of the general age of the alleged offender and opted to put the noose away. The club also knew it was not its place to play judge, jury and executioner.
Even if the kid did say what it is alleged he said, the suggestion of a ‘life ban’ is proposterous.
A ‘life ban’ is the easy way out of the scenario and a robotic response to dealing with such issues.
It is designed to make you look tough and ensure that everyone knows you understand how serious the situation is.
Let’s take a step back for a second.
This is a sport that welcomes back into its fold convicted criminals, and bans drug users who impact the integrity of the sport for just a few years, not life.
And it welcomes back those people as players and participants, not just spectators.
It would be hypocritical then, surely, to issue a life ban to a spectator for a remark he allegedly made; a remark that is disgraceful in the extreme, but certainly not up there with some rugby league ‘crimes’ of the past.
Mitchell himself was the subject of pre-season drama when he was involved in a fracas with Canberra’s Jack Wighton at a nightclub. The pair deny the charges, and will be back in court towards the end of the year.
He continues to play in the NRL without even the hint of punishment or sanction.
Last year Penrith’s Taylan May was found guilty of assaulting a fan. The NRL suspended him for two matches and laughably delayed the suspension so he didn’t miss the Finals (ironically, he was injured and missed the big end of season games anyway).
May was also fined $7,500 (50 per cent of which was suspended), and ordered to undergo counselling and education.
The two incidents are very different but the point is that the NRL does not hold its own players to ‘life ban’ standard when it comes to unsavoury incidents so it surely can’t do so to its fans.
Rugby league is a sport that prides itself on education and second chances. It has often been bitten on the backside for doing so, but it is largely a good thing. The game is often the circuit breaker for a lot of young men on who have gone off the rails.
Just because a ‘life ban’ sounds like the right language to use to make it loud and clear you’re against what happened, does not mean it’s the right course of action.
This will all continue to play out in the days, weeks and perhaps even months ahead.
Telling a 15-year-old kid he cannot attend rugby league ever again because of a dumb, immature and inappropriate comment would be about as hypocritical as you could get.
Let’s afford him the same offer of education, training and counselling that we do rugby league players.
Let’s understand exactly what happened and how it happened before we jump to throwing the kid under the bus.
The teen himself is, according to reports over the weekend, disputing some of the circumstances around the incident, denying his exchange with Mitchell was racially motivated.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that there are conflicing reports of what was said on the night.
Which is exactly why Penrith’s short statement on the matter was the right approach and why we need to hold our tongues before convicting the kid in the court of public opinion.
The wider issue of racism in sport is one that continues to be of significant concern.
As Roosters coach Trent Robinson said last Friday, there’s people in society who can’t stand players like Mitchell having a proud, loud Indigenous voice.
We have done so much in our sporting codes to encourage inclusivity and stamp out racism, but when incidents like the one last week occur, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.
We must do better.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.