Every NRL fan has seen it. Most NRL fans have circulated a meme about it, or even made a meme about it. I’m talking, of course, about that indescribable face that Jamie Soward adopts when he’s disappointed, angry or just downright frustrated. If you could ever reduce a player to an image, this is one of those occasions, with that iconic expression encapsulating the fringe position of a player who often seems just a little too aggressive to settle into his clownish demeanour, but just a little too clownish to solidifty into a hard man as well. In a football code that can be more petulant than most, Soward often feels like the ultimate tantrum halfback, which is quite different from being a bad sport or from accruing the kinds of scandals that seem to follow other players wherever they go. And because Soward seems to epitomise something temperamental at the heart of the game, he’s often disavowed by even the most moderate of footy commentators, despite the fact that he’s a lot more approachable and likeable in his off-field life than most of the other NRL “personalities” who manage to get away with murder only because they’ve streamlined it more efficiently into their star image. In a period in which every player of note is forced to craft a media portfolio, Soward is one the last bastions of a grassroots Rugby League culture that existed aeons before cable television, let alone free-to-air television, which makes him peculiarly confronting to a franchise like Fox Sports. That’s not to say, of course, that he never appears on NRL 360, but that there was something apposite about his recent confession on Fox that he’s something of a “bitter” player. While he laughingly blamed it on being a Scorpio, you have to wonder what it is about Fox that brought that confession to the fore in the first place.
For me, then, Soward is the epitome of a footy legend who’s been as unsuccessful in crafting a consistent media profile for himself as he has been successful in building a crushing record in try and try assists over the last decade. In part, that’s because he’s moved so much from team to team – the Roosters, the Dragons, the London Broncos, now the Panthers – that he’s never managed to dovetail his particular brand of manic skittishness with the wider personality of whatever club happens to be his flavour of the month. In fact, so regularly has he wandered that his underrated Origin performances don’t even feel like an exceptional high point in his career so much as yet another outfit he’s rotated through in his efforts to define his personality as a player. Or perhaps more accurately, in his singular lack of effort to define or consolidate his personality as a player, recycling through an astonishing array of hairstyles, fashion choices and stances with barely a second glance for the kind of brand recognition that informs so many players’ self-presentation. Watching Soward in action makes you realise the extent to which each big-name player perfects a certain stature, body language and stare on the field, consciously or unconsciously adapting themselves to the omniscient cameras that barely seem to intrude into Soward’s universe at all. In a footy culture where one whole round of the news cycle can be driven by Trent Hodkinson’s haircut – and let’s be honest, it was an epic haircut, a veritable statement of purpose for this up-and-coming Blues and Bulldogs legend – Soward’s ramshackle appearance – which is not even ramshackle in the retro manner of an Aaron Woods so much as just clumsy, careless and disinterested – doesn’t stand a chance. If he was in film, he’d be a character actor, always playing the same peevish, disenchanted and somewhat disenfranchised figure, but somewhat unrecognisable from role to role as well.
It can take a while, then, to access Soward’s consummate footy genius without an airbrushed media profile to help you along the way. Yet footy genius he undoubtedly is – one of the best and most brutal halfbacks out there, even if he hasn’t always found his partner in crime or synergised as perfectly with another half as, say, Hodkinson and Reynolds, or Pearce and Maloney. In fact, you could argue that Soward is the very definition of a fullback who hasn’t found his soulmate, which explains his incessant movement from club to club but also the sense that there’s something almost abjectly singular about him, like a serial monogamist who happens to be single against all odds. And that seems to trickle down into the way other players treat him as well. In last week’s clash with the Raiders, Soward was downed with a high tackle, followed by all the usual onfield celebrations and high-fiving. Leaving aside the question of what bad sportsmanship it is to indulge in that kind of machismo when a footy player is actually being stretched off the field unconscious, there was a sense of this being a peculiar victory because it was Soward, specifically, who was down. A high tackle on Soward was seen, for some reason, as a particular achievement, not so much because of his reputation and rigour as a footy player but because of some kink to his personality that seems to cause discomfort within the game.
My sense, personally, is that there’s something about Soward’s status as the “white indigenous player” that contributes to this uncertainty about how to respond to him. While the NRL is very keen on indigenous representation, there’s a certain kind of racism still present in the game that is very anxious to discriminate indigenous players from non-indigenous on the basis of skin colour alone. Whether Indigenous v All Stars Round perpetuates or subverts this expectation is an interesting question, but there was certainly something very suspect about the Indigenous v All Stars clash in 2011 in which Soward was rejected in favour of Johnathan Thurston and Chris Sandow on the field and Scott Prince on the bench, despite having ushered in what remains the defining Indigenous victory over the All Stars in 2010 by way of a smashing 40 metre try. Sure, Soward had experienced back issues over the intervening year as well as a few moments when his aggression got the better of him, but the fact that such an Indigenous stalwart didn’t even get a spot on the bench perhaps says something about what it means to some viewers to see a lighter-skinned player smashing it out for the Indigenous side. That might sound paranoid, but, then again, the Indigenous-All Stars Clash is unique in the NRL in that fans get to vote upon who makes the cut. There’s a whole article in that, but for the moment it suffices to say that it begs the question of whether people are simply voting for the best players, or whether they’re voting for people who best conform to their stereotypes about what an Indigenous or non-Indigenous player looks like. To be honest, I’ve always found the All Star and Indigenous categories a bit arbitrary, and something about Soward’s snubbing just seemed to bring that into greater relief.
In other words, there’s something striking about the way Soward refuses to perform either his white or indigenous identities in any exclusive way – and it’s very different from an indigenous player simply acting white, or passing for white in the eyes of the collective NRL culture. That makes him something of an outlier in the game, even or especially when his footy puts him front and centre. Something about the way Soward handles himself confounds or at least complicates the capacity of sports to contain race relations, a fantasy that’s particularly prevalent in Australia. And that’s confronting to viewers, not least of all the liberal-minded viewers anxious to convince themselves that they are combating racism by simply enjoying a good round of footy. Of course, NRL continues to play major role in indigenous visibility, with Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston leading the charge as heroically and nobly as they handle a Steeden, but there’s something about Soward that perpetually reminds you of what’s left undone or unsaid in the NRL as well, both in terms of indigenous issues and the wider ethos of the game.
For all those reasons, one of the quintessential Soward media appearances over the last year or so has been his guest spot on The Locker Room, a podcast run by Denan Kemp that’s broadcast on YouTube but more extensively promoted on Reddit. In a NRL media universe that’s largely dominated by cable television priced at ludicrous thresholds that the average fan simply can’t afford, online media has taken over a lot of the grassroots community that used to be attached to the television in the era when every game was broadcast live, or at least broadcast free. While quite a few of these podcasts have emerged, The Locker Room is one of the most laidback, likeable and insightful in its tone and manner – exactly the kind of low-key backwater where Soward can gain enough critical distance to reflect upon his media profile and show a side of his personality that you rarely see on the field. In part, that’s because Kemp is a bit of an outlier as well, a Turkish-New Zealander who’s a bit of an anomaly in a game that doesn’t tend to attract a massive Mediterranean demographic. In fact, Kemp started out as a soccer player for Mudgereeba SC, as well as briefly switching for Union for the Shute Shield, with the result that his career has been nearly as roving as Soward’s. Certainly, he seems to have settled with the Broncos for the forseeable future, but there’s something about Brisbane’s recruitment reach that gives even their most permanent fixtures a bit of a journeyman quality, especially whenever Origin comes around.
I’ve actually got a bit more to say about The Locker Room, and why I think it’s one of the best online footy programs around, but for now it’s enough to say that Kemp’s interview with Soward opened up a side to the player we rarely get to see: graceful, dignified and reflective about his past indiscretions without ever being sanctimonious or sentimental. In a wonderful touch, Soward actually got a call from Fox Sports during the interview, and in the spirit of The Locker Room Kemp kept the camera rolling as Soward shared a few laughs with some NRL 360‘s leading journalists. Normally, listening in on a phone conversation with that kind of prestige power makes you feel like a bit of an outsider, but in this case the effect was actually to make Soward feel even more aligned with Kemp and this low-key backdrop, as well as with the viewer or listener themselves. In fact, you probably couldn’t find a better summary of Soward’s relationship with the mainstream tabloid media than this perfectly pitched sequence: essentially friendly and respectful, but still somewhat remote. And it’s that remoteness, that inability to commit to the kind of player profile that makes for a good story, that seems to render him so ambivalent to the news cycle as well. If Soward is one of the slipperiest halfbacks on the field when he’s playing at his height – last year he was responsible for a staggering 40% of Panthers tries – then he’s even better at dodging his own media profile, which is perhaps what it finally takes to be a true footy legend.
And that’s the key to his social activism as well. Given that his interview with Kemp came out in the immediate aftermath of the Adam Goodes affair, it was inevitable that Kemp would bring up the issue of indigenous representation with Soward. In his own quiet way, Soward delivered the most damning and dignified takedown of the situation yet, speaking with that firm, clear conviction – “as a country we should be embarrassed” – that tends to scandalise a tabloid news machine that can only deal in the language of scandal to stay afloat. Wishing that he could make a gesture comparable to Goodes’, Soward joked that he can’t dance well enough to show off his indigenous pride on the field, although you have to wonder how it would go down in some corners of the NRL as well. Watching him reminded me of that period following Andrew Johns’ racist Maroons sledge when G.I. went very quiet for a bit before emerging as one of the staunchest and most vocal indigenous advocates in the country today. At the same time, I wonder whether reticence will remain Soward’s signature, nowhere clearer in this interview than when Kemp pointed out that the Goodes insult was even more striking in that there are – supposedly – no real tensions left with indigenous Australians due to how gracefully and seamlessly they’ve accepted their white colonisers into their homeland.
No doubt, Kemp meant well, but to anyone with any indigenous pride, that must have been a pretty hard thing to hear. All the harder to hear in that it was said with obvious sympathy and compassion, even as it totally whitewashed the ongoing friction between white and indigenous representation and discrimination in this country.. Challenging overt racism is hard, but challenging paternalistic racism is even harder, and Soward’s studied reticence was, to me, one of the most courageous footy moments over the last couple of years. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Kemp, he instead retreated to a silence that was as eloquent in its way as Inglis’ activism, the kind of silence that suggested years of small-scale racist affronts taken and received with the kind of dignity that made Soward my very favourite player in the game, after Inglish, from that very moment. And that’s not to say that dignity is complacency either. As the conversation between Kemp and Soward continued, things got more and more awkward, with Soward’s inability to toe even the supposedly mildest of party lines creating a palpable friction that he made no efforts to quell, even if he never allowed it to slip into animosity or aggression either.
To me, it was a vision of the kind of passive resistance that only comes after years of staring systemic racism in the face. Watching it, I wondered what guts it must have taken to cultivate that passive resistance in locker room after locker room, scrum after scrum, racist sledge after racist sledge. In a footy universe in which aggression is nearly always the best way to hand yourself over, passively, to an all-consuming media cycle, there’s something singularly active – and activist – about the Soward brand of reticence. Like Melville’s “Bartleby,” Soward’s response to nearly every feelgood footy moment is “I would prefer not to,” and for such a talented and clinical footy player there’s something quite radical about that gesture, possibly the only way to speak on behalf of an indigenous presence that’s all too often left without a voice by even this most demotic of sports.