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It cannot hurt to look back with new eyes

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It was a few years later that then-Collingwood captain Tony Shaw told Caroline Wilson in an interview that he would use a racist epithet on the field every week if he thought it would gain his team an advantage. The point now is that it was thought interesting rather than shocking at the time, an insight more than an affront. Shaw has strongly resiled from his position since.

It was later still that Nicky Winmar made his famous stance at Victoria Park.

My moment of racist intemperance keeps recurring in my mind the way racism keeps recurring in the game. It’s with us again now, personified by stories of Heritier Lumumba, Eddie Betts and Winmar, again. It never goes away.

Nothing in my upbringing would have precipitated my outburst; quite the opposite. The suburban milieu in which I grew up might have, but I was supposedly educated. As for the other people in the crowd, none would have thought of themselves as other than normal. Why did we not know? If I knew then what I know now: it’s a common refrain.

Nicky Winmar, a Noongar man, famously lifted his guernsey and pointed at his skin in a 1993 match against Collingwood.

Nicky Winmar, a Noongar man, famously lifted his guernsey and pointed at his skin in a 1993 match against Collingwood.Credit:Wayne Ludbey

More innocently, the great coach John Kennedy, who died this week, believed that for a team to function, everyone in it had to train identically. It was the orthodoxy then. Almost as soon as he retired, it changed. Now, it’s about maximising the potential of each part for the benefit of the whole.

Instead of looking back 30 years, I tried to cast forward 30. Suddenly, all the answers become questions again. Can we be sure that everything we so-called “woke” white folk think is right now will still be right then? (Almost certainly, “woke” won’t be.)

Can we be sure that when we think we are fixing problems now, we aren’t worsening them? Is our enlightenment complete? Somehow, I doubt it. Is it even enlightenment? That’s an even more worrying question. History says at least some of what we hold to be truths now will be nothing of the sort in 30 years.

It’s why the statues are tumbling. 

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It’s also the back story to the other dominant story this week, the revelations about former High Court judge Dyson Heydon and his “wandering hands”, as they were once glibly called.

Most blokes my age will know of other blokes like him. Half a lifetime ago, we might have thought of them as sleazes, but that’s all. They were just like us, but more … macho? (There’s another word that’s fallen by the wayside.) Even the expression “wandering hands” had an “ah, well” ring about it. If it wasn’t right, it was at worst harmless.

In our times, in our wokeness, we like to think we’re getting on top of all the social ills. But are we? We’re alert to them, but so what? Something else struck me forcibly this week. Media outlets, including this one, are reluctant to allow public comments on stories like this one about racism and sexual predation. We know we’ll get racist and sexist reactions. Social media flags it.

If you accept that now is not 30 years ago, and 30 years hence won’t be now, and that we’re learning all the time, the issue of racism in footy takes on a different cast. I had a little to do with Lumumba early in his Collingwood days. He was a livewire and a searcher, full of the sheer wonder of playing league footy, grateful to the club for the chance, on his way to a premiership and an all-Australian guernsey in 2010.

Later, plainly, something went badly wrong. Perhaps it was even then. Since we cannot look forward with visionary certainty, it cannot hurt to look back with new eyes. Back at the MCG that day, my colleague knew something was wrong, and what. Someone always knows. We need to listen.

Greg Baum is chief sports writer and associate editor of The Age.

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