AFL racism revelations sadly all too common

Ordered to terminate a pregnancy. Forced to break up with partners — and supervised while doing so. Phone numbers changed and communication with family monitored. The allegations from a review into racism at the Hawthorn Football Club, as revealed by the ABC, are shocking. 

They expose an alleged culture under four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson and former assistant coach Chris Fagan of abuse, deeply entrenched racism and control over Indigenous players’ lives and families. 

Fagan has stood down as Brisbane coach pending an independent investigation and Clarkson has delayed his start at his new club North Melbourne pending an independent investigation commissioned by the AFL. Clarkson has denied the allegations while Fagan has been reported as saying he had no knowledge of the meetings at the centre of the claims.

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Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney called the report harrowing. “Aboriginal kids grow up dreaming of playing footy,” she wrote on Twitter. “For many just being drafted to a club is the highlight of their career, the culmination of years of hard work. They deserve so much better.”

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan fronted media this morning, saying the club “needed to do more”.

“We need to run a proper investigation to get to the bottom of it and this is important,” he said. “So many people are hurting today and have been hurting for a long time.” He said that an independent panel would allow the accused to “give their version of events”. The report will not be publicly released.

General manager of inclusion and social policy at the AFL Tanya Hosch said the country has a problem with racism: “If you look at any organisation in the country, specifically for issues in relation to the treatment, cultural safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, you would anticipate finding a problem.”

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said on ABC Radio National that the AFL was an iconic institution and needed to be an exemplar — not unlike Parliament House — where “the very best standards need to apply”.

Former footballer and ABC presenter Tony Armstrong asked viewers this morning to “spare a thought” for the First Nations community, saying it had been a “tough little period” following coverage of the queen’s death, the banning of spit hoods which are disproportionately used on Indigenous peoples, and revelations of racism in the Kumanjayi Walker inquest. 

“We’ve had 517 deaths in custody since the royal commission to date and now these allegations, contextually on all of that, it is not easy,” he said.  

One player alleged a group of coaches urged him to have his partner’s pregnancy terminated for the sake of his career, was told he’d have to move into the home of an assistant coach, and had his SIM card removed to limit contact with family. The couple proceeded with the pregnancy but — after the stress and trauma — terminated a second one, saying the club caused them to break up.

Another player said he was escorted to his and his pregnant partner’s home and instructed to inform her the relationship was over. He was later informed during training that she had miscarried. Another said he was permitted just a few days at home with his partner and newborn.

Australia has a shameful history of racism and racism in sports. Last year a review into Collingwood found the club was guilty of systemic racism and failed to effectively deal with racist incidents, while Hawthorn has been criticised for past treatment and inclusion of Indigenous players. Last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report on how to address spectator racism in sports.

Already Hawthorn Football Club has attempted to distance itself from the allegations, calling them “historic” in a statement released this morning. 

“This important work has raised disturbing historical allegations that require further investigation. Upon learning of these allegations, the club immediately engaged AFL Integrity as is appropriate,” the statement reads. 

“While the process indicated the current environment at the club is culturally safe, it also recommended that some of the club’s current First Nations training and development programs should continue to be strengthened.”

Several incidents allegedly took place under Clarkson and Fagan, who worked together between 2013 and 2016. To protect the identities of the families, names and dates have been omitted from the ABC’s report. 

The AFL has also released a statement — again calling the allegations “historic” — saying it is “finalising its own process to investigate the allegations and is seeking to speak to those who shared their experiences with Hawthorn’s review”. 

“We are committed to the welfare of all involved.”

The AFL Players’ Association, which established an Indigenous Advisory Board in 2011 to advocate for First Nations players, has called for a well-resourced and wide-ranging independent investigation into the allegations. 

This article was updated at 6 pm on September 21.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is on 1300 22 4636 and the First Nations Support Line is on 1800 959 500.

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