Murdoch press condemns rugby league star, not racism

March 13, 2011
Benji Marshall.

Benji Marshall, one of the most high-profile players in rugby league, was charged with assault after an altercation in the early hours of March 5.

Earlier that evening, he hosted a charity function on March 4 for the Children’s Cancer Institute of Australia at which about $250,000 was raised.

Afterwards, the West Tigers player went out with his girlfriend for a few drinks, but was reported to not have been drunk. They later went to a Sydney McDonald’s store.

An altercation occurred, which began with a man insulting Marshall and ended with Marshall punching the same man in the lip.

The Australian said on March 7: “Marshall is understood to have stopped at a set of traffic lights to sign autographs for fans, separating him from his group of friends.

“He was set upon by a group of up to 10 men and reacted angrily after allegedly being called a ‘black cunt’.”

Marshall’s manager, Martin Tauber, told the media that Marshall was called a “black cunt” three times before he reacted. Tauber said: “One of them started to shout at him and said: ‘Go back to New Zealand you black c...’.”

“He tried to walk away from him — he tried to make light of it and then the guy did it again,” Tauber said.

The Australian said: “A caller to Sydney talkback station 2KY — who was identified only as Jenny — yesterday praised [Marshall’s] behaviour at the McDonald’s.

“‘He was such a good sport,’ she said. ‘That’s why we thought it was such a nice thing for him to do, to take time out and hang around for photos.”

The man who was hit, however, denied racially abusing Marshall. He said he had told Marshall that Brisbane Broncos star Darren Lockyer was a better player than him and Marshall reacted violently.

Which story is true matters in how the incident should be viewed — unless, that is, you are certain journalists in the Murdoch press.

Consider Dean Ritchie’s article in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Herald Sun on March 7, which called Marshall the “latest high-profile NRL star to disgrace the football code” and said “his reputation was in tatters”.

Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, ran a similar line.

These comments occur in a context where Marshall has said he will plead not guilty to the assault charges and is likely, in his defence, to allege he was racially vilified.

If it is true that Marshall was racially vilified, then he would be far from a disgrace. His reaction would be understandable — especially in a context where thousands of people are victims of racially-motivated assault every year in Australia.

That Marshall could be subjected to racial abuse would not be surprising. Current and former rugby league players have reported they have been victims of racial abuse.

The Sydney Morning Herald said on March 7: “Marshall’s former Kiwis team-mate Roy Asotasi says NRL stars are subject to racial taunts.”

Former rugby league player Mal Meninga, a South Sea Islander, said: “It’s been happening for 100 years, to be honest with you.”

The March 9 SMH reported on a story involving rugby league player Petro Civoniceva.

It said Civoniceva “was making his way from the interchange bench to the sideline when the taunts from a small group of men created a confrontation. Fijian-born Civoniceva recalled yesterday he was called a ‘monkey’ and a ‘fucking nigger’ by the group and told to ‘get back in my tree’.”

He has called for a National Rugby League (NRL) campaign “to educate fans that such abuse is unacceptable”.

Former NRL player Matt Sing, of Aboriginal background, told the Australian Associated Press on March 7 that “he frequently had to deal with abuse from people on a night out”.

He “admitted he once came very close to punching a man in Sydney who hurled racist insults at him in front of his family”.

Sing said: “It was when I played for the Roosters and me and my family were on our way home and a guy came up and started bagging the Roosters outside Easts Leagues Club ... I was walking away and trying to make light of the situation, and then he called me a black so-and-so, and something just went off inside of me.

“Thankfully, I had my family with me and I managed to avoid hitting the bloke and I just told him to watch himself, but it could have been a situation similar to Benji’s where you get yourself in trouble just standing up for yourself."

Sing said that he “felt for Benji”.

Despite the some journalists pontificating on how disgraceful Marshall’s behaviour was, he is receiving widespread sympathy.

The Daily Telegraph ran an online poll in which 63% agreed that Marshall shouldn’t be suspended from playing over the incident.

West Tigers chief executive Stephen Humphreys said: “We’ve had an overwhelming response of support for Benji from our members and also corporates, we’ve had scores and scores of emails and support for him.”

Most people can understand that the causes of a violent reaction depend on the context. If Marshall just hit a stranger in the mouth for no obvious reason, he’d be rightfully condemned.

Violently attacking someone for racist comments may not be something to advocate — but it is not hard to see how repeated taunts may provoke the target into snapping.

Peter Laamp said in a March 10 article: “It’s different if notable players get fonged in public and indulge in stupidity or violence. Then they deserve all the publicity that goes with it.

“But if they’re abused by morons, especially racial abuse as has been alleged, it is no easy matter to walk away and thank the idiot for being so nasty.”

If Marshall was racially abused, it is not Marshall who should be condemned, but those who were responsible for the racial taunts.

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