Nicky Winmar is exhausted. For months, he has been dreading this anniversary. He schemed about how he could avoid the fuss, dodge the media, or somehow wish the events of 30 years ago away.
But there’s no getting around it. Now he’s doing his best to embrace the moment. Tomorrow, April 17, marks the day in 1993 that the St Kilda legend turned and lifted his jumper to a feral Collingwood crowd who had been racially sledging him, and pointed to his skin.
“I’m proud to be black,” he fired back at the mob.
His team had prevailed. Winmar had kicked the sealer, storming through traffic at full tilt to intercept and slotting a goal from outside 50 metres. His Indigenous teammate Gilbert McAdam had kicked another five. And Sunday Age photographer Wayne Ludbey had captured the moment that froze Winmar in the public eye forever.
That public image has been a heavy burden to carry. A statue of Winmar, striking the pose that landed him on the front page of the paper the next morning, now stands outside Optus Stadium in Perth. But Neil Elvis “Nicky” Winmar the man is no statue.
“I did get tired after that game. I virtually walked away and didn’t want to go back,” Winmar said on Friday. “I was just devastated. Then I looked at the photo the next day and thought, ‘What have I started here?’”
A couple of months ago, Winmar’s former teammates, sensing he needed support, rallied around him. A private event was held at Moorabbin. Eighteen of the 20 St Kilda players who took the field that day were there.
Wayne Ludbey was there, too. He captured another moment as Winmar’s teammates, McAdam included, all lifted their shirts in solidarity. Winmar walked away from that day feeling lighter, knowing that he had support that wasn’t so readily forthcoming in 1993.
“Years ago, you used to smash someone in the mouth for calling you a black so-and-so, and then you’d go through the tribunal, and they’d tell you ‘sticks and stones’. Well, we’re not talking about sticks and stones. Haven’t we been through enough already?” Winmar says.
“I just want the next generation of kids to understand as well. Every time something like this happens, people refer to me. I’d like them to acknowledge the kids who are playing footy today. They need support more than me.”
On Tuesday, there’ll be a Healing Ceremony at Victoria Park, co-ordinated by former Essendon player Nathan Lovett-Murray, executive producer of The Ripple Effect, a documentary on Winmar released in 2021.
“Nicky has told his story so many times, and I felt like he needed that healing. Not just him, but a lot of other past players who have suffered racism through playing football,” Lovett-Murray says. “It’s part of their journey, to help and support them as well.”
Among the attendees will be former Indigenous players Robert Muir, Des Headland, Byron Pickett, Leroy Jetta and McAdam. The intention is not only to support and celebrate Winmar, but others whose careers were impacted – and sometimes derailed – by racism.
In 2021, former Adelaide captain Taylor Walker was suspended for using a racial slur towards SANFL player Robbie Young. Eddie Betts – then in his final year with Carlton – said he was sick and tired of fighting, “because it keeps happening and happening and happening”.
It’s still happening. In the past three weeks, the Western Bulldogs’ Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Adelaide’s Izak Rankine, the Brisbane Lions’ Charlie Cameron and Fremantle’s Michael Walters and Nathan Wilson have all been subjected to racist abuse, both from the stands and online.
“It’s not just Eddie,” Lovett-Murray says. “Why did Cyril Rioli leave the game early? Why did Adam Goodes leave the game early? It’s because of racism. This is what it leads to. Indigenous people are going to leave the game because they’re sick and tired of having to put up with it.”
Songwriter Paul Kelly turned Eddie’s refrain – echoed by Lovett-Murray – into a song, Every Step Of The Way. In the song, Betts remembers those who came before him, comforting himself that they were still walking alongside him.
Winmar similarly seeks solace in the stories of another songwriter, the late Archie Roach. “I listen to his story every now and again, to hear his voice. We look up to people like that through our lives, we idolise them for who they are and what they’ve done.”
For the past four years, Winmar has immersed himself in art. From virtually a standing start, under the tutelage of sculptor Lis Johnson, he has improved so rapidly that he is now a finalist in this year’s Gallipoli Art Prize, for his painting Anzac Cove – Bombardment.
Sport and war metaphors are laboured at the best of times, but when Winmar says he was thinking of Danny Frawley when he painted it, he is heartfelt. “I went to war with that guy,” Winmar says of his former captain, who died by suicide in 2019.
Another teammate from that day in 1993, Sean Ralphsmith, is now president of the St Kilda Past Players Committee, and was a consultant to the club during the development of its Danny Frawley Centre for Health and Wellbeing.
Ralphsmith, whose son Hugo now plays for Richmond, doesn’t remember hearing the words coming over the fence from the Collingwood fans that day. It’s a question he says he has asked himself often: could he and his teammates have called it out? Why was it left to Winmar?
“We were potentially ignorant of it, to the point where if you heard bits and pieces like that from over the fence, you’d probably just ignore it and never really take the time to think about how it was affecting the Indigenous boys,” Ralphsmith says.
Ralphsmith says Winmar has carried the mantle thrust upon him by Ludbey’s photo with dignity. “Speaking in public is probably not what he loves, he doesn’t do it naturally, so I think he’s doing a fantastic job to be an advocate in that space.
“He didn’t do what he did 30 years ago for that purpose, he did it because that came naturally at the time. I don’t think he loves the limelight, unless it’s as a sporting icon, because he’s great at that – look at his highlights. He was pretty damn good!”
Winmar knows it, too: Occasionally, he likes to sit back and watch his own highlights packages. “It was good days,” he says. Perhaps he would have preferred a statue in a football pose? “You’ve got me there! I’ll have to have a chat to Lis, see what she can come up with.”
But Winmar knows the public image of him stands for something bigger than the game. “We’ve still got this fight. Young Jamarra [Ugle-Hagan], I spoke to his mum Alice in Warrnambool. I said, ‘I’m proud of your son, and that I’ll always be there for him’.”
Today, Collingwood and St Kilda will face off in Adelaide for the AFL’s inaugural Gather Round. Winmar has already expressed his disappointment that the game won’t be at the MCG, but he will be there for the match.
Winmar raised his jumper, and his voice, at a time when few were listening. This year, there will be a referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice to parliament. “We’ve always had a voice in our history,” he says. “We’ve tried to tell people about things. We’ve got to try and change something. Let’s just have a go, give it a turn.”
First published in The Age, 16 April 2023