The National Rugby League (NRL) establishment is in damage control once again after one of the game's stars took a courageous stand against racism in the sport.
Star centre Timana Tahu quit the New South Wales State of Origin team on June 11 in protest against racism directed towards an opponent.
NSW assistant coach Andrew Johns described Queensland centre Greg Inglis, an Aboriginal man, as a “black cunt” in his training instructions to the team, and has been accused of making racist remarks about other Queensland players.
ABC Grandstand reported allegations on June 15 that Johns had used terms such as "nigger" and “monkey” to describe Aboriginal players in the past.
Tahu — who currently plays for Parramatta after a successful career as Johns' team mate in the Newcastle Knights — is of Aboriginal and Maori heritage, and has allegedly tolerated Johns' racism since they first met in 1999.
Ex-Newcastle player Robbie O'Davis told Rugby League Week on June 16 that Tahu and other Aboriginal players were subjected to racism at that club, forcing some to leave.
To cover up the incident, NSW team management at first tried to convince Tahu to accept a private apology from Johns, as a way to resolve Tahu's “hurt feelings”. After Tahu left, his departure was blamed on an injury until the truth was exposed the next day.
Sections of the media have attempted to paint Johns as a victim who made an error of judgment, detailing his pain and anguish at offending his friend.
However, Johns' apology only did more damage, exposing his utter lack of understanding: “Timana deemed [my comments] to be offensive and inappropriate", he said on June 12, according to sportal.com.au.
"I'm really upset and shattered that I've offended Timana ... It's a private matter between myself and him and we'll talk in the next couple of days."
This was the same excuse made by Mal Brown, a famous former Richmond player in the Australian Rules code. On June 16 he referred to Aboriginal players as “cannibals” at a charity event in Melbourne. He later dismissed his comments as “in jest” but few were laughing.
Tahu released a video statement on June 14, saying the issue went beyond this single incident.
"Leaving Origin was a really big decision for me and I'd like to clarify that it was not just one racial comment directed at one individual that offended me", he said.
"The remarks were directed at various races and the situation I encountered was totally unacceptable.
"This isn't about me or Andrew Johns, it's about arresting racism and standing up for my beliefs.”
Johns' comments have received universal condemnation, but debate has emerged about the seriousness of the matter.
Tahu has received support from fellow player Preston Campbell and former NSW five-eighth Anthony Mundine. Government figures such as former Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma and NSW Premier Kristina Keneally have also defended Tahu, news.com.au reported on June 15.
However, Johns' supporters in the media, NRL administrators and a number of white players have attempted to downplay the incident, desperate to avoid more damage to the game's already tainted reputation and help salvage Johns' media career.
The Australian reported on June 17 that NRL chief executive David Gallop said Andrew Johns deserves credit for apologising and many of Johns' colleagues have claimed that he is "not racist" because he does not hate black people.
Fiji-born Socialist Alliance candidate for Parramatta Duncan Roden told Green Left Weekly that Tahu's actions should be seen in the broader context of racism in Australian society. "Timana Tahu is extremely courageous for taking a stand like this”, he said. “This kind of casual racism is so ingrained in Australian culture that many people can't even recognise the problem.
"It’s laughable that some are trying to claim that Johns isn’t racist or that its not a big deal — his behaviour is typical of a large section of Australia's population and it has a huge effect on the lives of minority groups. It allows governments to get away with racist policies like the NT intervention or attacking refugees.
"Full credit to Timana for standing up to these poisonous attitudes."
Tahu's decision to walk out could not have come on a bigger occasion. State of Origin is the biggest event on the rugby league calendar, with special attention being paid to NSW before what was their fifth straight series loss.
Nor could Tahu have exposed a bigger target. Andrew Johns is arguably the best rugby league player in history, and is a prominent commentator on Channel 9's league coverage. Johns has since been suspended from his column with the Daily Telegraph, and his part-time coaching roles with a number of NRL clubs are under review.
However, he will keep his lucrative television and radio contracts, with his employers saying they are satisfied with his apology. They may find that many are not so willing to forgive.