Volume 8 Number 6
June 11 - July 8 2012
When St Kilda footballer Nicky Winmar was photographed famously lifting his guernsey in 1993 in response to racist taunts by Collingwood supporters at their home ground at Victoria Park, it appeared to be the gesture of a lone trailblazer challenging an unruly mob.
Certainly it was a gesture that caught public imagination and presaged a new approach to the way the Australian Football League addressed previously ignored issues of racial vilification, which had run unbridled on each side of the fence for decades.
But as Professor of History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Joy Damousi, clarifies, Nicky Winmar’s defiant pointing to his bared skin came in the wake of a series of momentous and hard-fought legal and political battles and achievements.
“The game was played out against a backdrop of overtly expressed localised racism, but it came to take on national significance,” says Professor Damousi, who is co-author with John Cash of Footy Passions, a cultural analysis of football in the Australian psyche.
“This was April 1993 and an extremely significant time in Australian Indigenous relations. It follows Prime Minister Paul Keating’s landmark Redfern Speech – arguably his greatest and most inspirational – which was delivered in December 1992, and less than twelve months after the Mabo decision, which defined native title, was handed down by the High Court.”
“So at this point in the early 1990s the mood was really changing. There was a big swing against racism and a conversation around Indigenous rights in a way that was very new in Australian history.”
Professor Damousi, a lifelong Colling-wood supporter, was on the other side of the fence to personally witness Nicky Winmar’s ultimately influential gesture on Saturday 17 April 1993.
“Sadly, the racist sentiments expressed by supporters that day were reinforced by club president Allan McAllister, who infamously averred that Aboriginal players were welcome at the club ‘as long as they conducted themselves as white people’,” says Professor Damousi. “Such sentiments were at odds with new developments on the national stage, and prompted mixed emotions on that day in April 1993.
“Some Collingwood supporters joined their St Kilda counterparts in cheering Nicky Winmar at the end of the game, but it was a very depressing moment for us, and as a supporter for over 40 years it was the lowest point in my barracking experience, and a very low point in the club’s history.
“There were discussions and disagreements breaking out within the crowd and this created a very tense atmosphere. So when Nicky Winmar pulled up his jumper and pointed at his chest it came as a relief because we could all just cheer him in celebration of the message he was trying to send out, and finally silence those racists in the crowd.
According to Professor Damousi, Nicky Winmar’s number seven woollen guernsey embodies a wealth of stories and points to achievements in race relations not only on the sporting field, but across the nation at this significant period of Australian history.
“Although a simple material object, Nicky Winmar’s jumper beautifully encapsulates a mood, a period, and a turning point. It is the enduring symbol of an electrifying and an unforgettable moment.”
Real progress was last week exemplified when, turning full circle almost 20 years hence, Collingwood footballer Dale Thomas took his own defiant stand against racism in the crowd, and his club suspended the offending supporter’s membership.