A rugby league messiah, a naughty boy or a genuinely misunderstood: Latrell Mitchell is certainly a gift to the media that keeps on giving
There are a couple of things we know for sure about Latrell Mitchell – firstly, that he is a very, very good footballer, and secondly, that he somehow always finds himself on the news feeds and social media – and not always for the right reasons.
He must not only be a coach’s dream as a player but also a rugby league scribe’s dream topic on a slow news day.
The fact that I have written this article and you have chosen to read it is proof that everyone is fascinated by Latrell.
This fascination appears to come from the fact that he is both a tall poppy and a very successful indigenous sportsman, a fact that sticks in the craw of some, and it is fueled by controversy and his honest and sometimes ill-conceived brushes with the media.
It is hard to say why Mitchell consistently and willingly puts his head on the media chopping block, as the evidence would suggest that he generally does himself far more harm than good.
No other player in the game attracts the same level of public scrutiny as Mitchell, but is he the victim here or is it largely self-inflicted?
Surely, it is a bit of both, but how did he become the most polarising and read-about player in the game?
Mitchell was always a star junior player, but he really announced himself to the world in 2016 when he made his first-grade debut for the Roosters at just 18.
He went on to score 65 tries on the way winning two premierships with the Roosters, took out a Dally M Centre of the Year Award, and represented both NSW and Australia, and all before his 23rd birthday.
A meteoric rise by any standard; fans were wondering whether Mitchell could become one of the game’s truly great players.
Then, things seem to change for Mitchell, when a new chapter in the ‘Book of Feuds’ was written in red, white and blue blood when he left the Roosters for their bitter rivals South Sydney, in what could only be described as very messy circumstances.
Many Roosters fans and some scribes have neither forgotten nor forgiven this act of supposed treachery, while the letter he wrote to thank the Roosters staff, players and fans was conveniently ignored.
He drew more flack for his announcement prior to Game 1 of the 2019 State of Origin series that he would not sing the Australian National Anthem because it did not represent Aboriginal Australians.
Many fans, myself included, were initially offended by this, but wiser heads have since correctly pointed out that no player is under any obligation to sing the national anthem, nor any citizen.
Mitchell could have just as easily remained silent on the subject, and not sung the anthem, but here was an early sign that he was prepared to publicly stand up for his beliefs.
If Mitchell thought that the 2020 season would give him a fresh start, he was very much mistaken. Firstly, he drew criticism from the usual suspects when he appeared in the NRL pre-season advertisements proudly draped in the Aboriginal flag.
I mean, how dare he? Then, barely two games into his Souths career in a virus-impacted season, he was busted and heavily fined for a stupid and irresponsible COVID-19 breach.
It is funny to look back on the COVID restrictions now, but at the time the cries of “I told you so” about Mitchell were growing, and the permanently offended wanted blood.
Curiously, he drew far more criticism than fellow COVID-breacher Nathan Cleary, but it was Latrell after all.
Mitchell’s ability to be suspended at just the wrong time not only kept his name up in lights for all the wrong reasons but also ensured he featured again in that ‘Book of Feuds’.
League fans in general, and Roosters fans in particular, really gave it to Mitchell following his well-deserved six-game suspension for an ugly hit on friend and former Roosters teammate Joey Manu towards the end of the 2021 season.
Neither Manu nor Mitchell played again that year and Souths fans and players alike were left wondering whether their two-point grand-final loss to the Panthers would have ended with another Souths premiership had Mitchell been on the field.
Fast forward to round 25 of the 2023 season and another brain fade saw Mitchell pinged for a cheap shot on Newcastle’s Tyson Frizell.
He was suspended for two weeks and missed Souths’ must-win final-round clash with the Roosters. Souths lost to their bitter rivals and finished just outside the finals, once again leaving the Rabbitohs faithful scratching their heads and wondering whether Mitchell’s absence cost them a finals berth.
2023 also saw Mitchell involved in the Canberra fracas and subsequent beat-up, and while he was probably ill-advised to be out and about at a Canberra club so late at night, the police charges were ultimately thrown out when the prosecution was found to be based on very dubious evidence.
I wonder if Mitchell would have been subjected to this drama if he was not a high-profile NRL player…or an Aboriginal?
He also drew a target on himself when he told Fox Sports: “I definitely have a goal to be the best indigenous player to ever play the game”.
Now depending upon where you sit in the Latrell Mitchell camp, and your knowledge of indigenous Australian rugby league players both past and present, this statement either reeks of arrogance, is just plain naive, or is highly aspirational.
Could Mitchell ever become the best indigenous player to ever play the game? Probably no chance, on current evidence, when you consider the likes of Arthur Beetson, Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston and co, but once again Mitchell saw fit to risk the criticism by sharing his thoughts with the wider community.
Then, in a leaked text in August 2023, Mitchell was the subject of a ridiculous and racist rant by an obviously “tired and emotional” Rod Churchill, son of Clive, who said: “Where was the human headline Mitchell tonight ….missing again, this was his big game apparently? Your club will not win another comp for another 40 years if this imposter remains at Souths……he is a complete myth who has the Aboriginal cause paramount and South Sydney second, if at all…..nothing was done and now this cancer that is Mitchell has ruined the club”.
Strange and insulting stuff from someone who should know better, and just another blow that Mitchell had to brush aside as best he could.
Interestingly, the fact that Mitchell won the 2023 Ken Stephen Medal went largely unreported. I guess good news travels slowly and doesn’t earn advertising dollars.
The Ken Stephen Medal – Man of the Year recognises the efforts of an NRL player who has not only achieved on the field but also has committed time off the field to community projects.
Throughout the year, Mitchell visited the communities of Cabbage Tree Island, Brewarrina, and Comboyne to support communities impacted by floods and to promote grassroots rugby league.
He offered his time and support in his own time to try and help those affected by the floods and to put a smile on the faces of the children who live in these regions.
Through the Souths Cares program, he has also campaigned against bullying and racism, utilising his high profile as an NRL player to bring awareness to these issues and calling for change.
He is often unjustly targeted for taking a stand against racism and bullying, yet he continues to stand against these abhorrent behaviours and advocate for his people. He has also supported countless individual requests for assistance, which he has done discreetly and without publicity. Quite an achievement for one so young.
There is no doubting Mitchell’s passion for his people, his club and rugby league, but he is not the type of person to just play the game the way we want him, go home, and keep his feelings and opinions to himself, and his mouth shut.
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His club, his teammates and his fans all love him, as does his wider community and those he assists, and there is no greater accolade than that.
Mitchell is neither a rugby league messiah nor a naughty boy, but I am sure he will continue to be the media gift that keeps on giving – and more power to him for that.