In the classic ’70s television series Welcome Back, Kotter – where it all began for a doe-eyed, snake-hipped John Travolta – the public-school Sweathogs, as they were called, had a series of go-to insults for each other.
“Oh, yeah?”, Epstein or Vinnie or Horshack would taunt. “OK – your sister.” Then the inevitable comeback. “Yeah? Well – your mother.”
It’s the old maternal insult, the “yo mama” line – the tried-and-true offending of the family honour, and it goes back to at least Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.
In Titus Andronicus:
Demetrius: “Villain, what hast thou done?”
Aaron: “That which thou canst not undo.”
Chiron: “Thou hast undone our mother.”
Aaron: “Villain, I have done thy mother.”
I doubt that the language of the Western Bulldogs’ Will Minson was quite as crisp as Shakespeare when he tossed his “yo mama” insult at Port Adelaide’s Danyle Pearce, but the response has been as sharp as a rapier. Minson has tearfully apologised, promised never to sledge again and has been stood down for one game.
No one knows quite what he said – he disputes what has been reported – but the AFL acted swiftly in support of its anti-discrimination policy. I should be pleased that the AFL did. I should continue to stay in the battle to wipe out misogynistic, racist or offensive language on the field, but I have to admit that I just don’t care. If these guys want to sledge each other, what do I care how they do it? I know that they will continue to do so, and their choice of language is irrelevant to me because I expect nothing from footballers when it comes to discretion of language, or care for discrimination.
Others have higher expectations, but they are possibly also those who talk of footballers as role models and leadership figures – a foolish trust, it seems to me, when a Jimmy Stynes comes along only once in a generation.
I don’t believe changing the way footballers insult each other will achieve anything. The real way to change entrenched attitudes of racism and sexism is to change the world these blokes operate in, and that’s by populating it with people of colour and with women. They’ll get it, and they’ll change, when their daughters play footy, and when their sister runs on to the field as captain of the team, when a woman chairs a club, anchors a commentary team. They’ll get it, and they’ll change, when the trainer, physio, PR manager and full-forward are indigenous.
So while language matters, what really matters most to me is change in numbers, and that’s the change I am increasingly agitated at seeing move so slowly.
I recall interviewing Australia’s first female professional pilot, Deborah Wardley, many years ago – the woman whom Ansett took to the High Court in order to prevent her flying.
She told of the day that a steward informed her there was a man on board who didn’t want his plane flown by a woman and demanded to be allowed off. Busy with her preflight routine, she asked for the man to be brought to her. As she took her co-pilot through their detailed, technical prep, she realised he was standing behind her. With more than a little irritation, she turned around asked him what his problem was. She smiled as she recalled the bloke, goggle-eyed at the job she was doing, stammered “Nothing, nothing at all …” and tottered back to his seat.
No one knows what language this man might have used to talk about the “girly” who flew his plane that day, and maybe impressionable ears were tuned in as he indulged his sexist worldview.
But who cares? That day a woman got him off the ground and safely back down again, so tell that to your mama.