The latest failure of the AFL to resolve allegations of racism in the sport it oversees provides a cautionary tale of what happens when we do not listen to Indigenous people, when their hurt is marginalised and ignored, and when polite requests for just resolutions are shut down.
The ineptitude that has come to characterise AFL efforts to resolve incidents of alleged racism stands in stark contrast to the league’s effective public relations agenda that has seen it become almost universally applauded as an exemplar of reconciliation and improved race relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Such popular understandings of the AFL are the result of a PR strategy that first emerged in the 1990s after high-profile incidents of on-field racism involving Indigenous footballers Nicky Winmar and Michael Long. As the number of Indigenous players increased, the AFL went to work reconstructing the past; one in which the AFL and its predecessor, the VFL, had always embraced Aboriginal contributions to the sport.
The PR campaigns revised the history of past Aboriginal players including Joseph Johnson (Fitzroy FC 1904-1906), Sir Douglas Nicholls MBE (Fitzroy FC 1932-1937), Graham Farmer (Geelong FC 1962-1967) and Sydney Jackson (Carlton FC 1969-1976), emphasising the role football had played in their liberation from racism and discrimination.
In retelling the stories of these players, the AFL significantly downplayed or excluded important aspects of their experience as Indigenous men. Johnson played as a white man at a time when state protection law that applied to Aborigines threatened the forced removal of his children.
Nicholls was refused a rub down after training with Carlton because as an Aborigine he was unclean and “stunk”.
Farmer did not advertise his Aboriginality for fear that it would again undermine his freedom as it had in his childhood when an inmate of Sister Kate’s Home in Perth.
Jackson, unable to hide his Aboriginal identity, was weekly subjected to vile racist attacks by those on the field and in the stands. In a highly decorated career, his most vivid recollection of playing football is being called a “black bastard” by Collingwood supporters in the 1970 grand final.
The appalling treatment of Indigenous champion Adam Goodes, that drove him out of the game, needs no further explanation.
AFL efforts to reinvent itself as the leading anti-racism institution in Australia have been underpinned by a determination to control the media. This has been assisted by the league’s powerful and influential in-house publishing arm. In 2008, this arm published an official history of Australian football that largely excluded Indigenous authors.
The success of the public relations campaign has not only been effective in deceiving the public into believing Indigenous players have a safe workplace in a sport now free from racism, it has also been successful in fooling the Boys’ Club, the white men from privileged backgrounds who run the AFL with their own agendas at the forefront. Racism and discrimination have become a secret those controlling the sport have come to hide from themselves.
It is therefore unsurprising that this week the AFL moved to rewrite the recent history of alleged racism at Hawthorn FC. After shocking claims by players and their wives and partners, Hawthorn last year commissioned an external review of the treatment of Indigenous players at the club. Indigenous former player Phil Egan submitted his report to Hawthorn in September 2022. The same month, ABC journalist Russell Jackson reported the review’s key allegations, four days before the grand final. One past Indigenous player alleged staff including head coach Alastair Clarkson had urged him to have a pregnancy terminated, “get rid” of his partner and move into the home of an assistant coach. Clarkson and other former Hawthorn staff named in the report strenuously deny the allegations of racism.
The allegations were shocking because they extended beyond the experience of racism directed at Indigenous players to include how the football industry had impacted wives and partners and their private and family lives. In these allegations, racism and misogyny intersected. The form of gendered racism alleged is particularly offensive to Indigenous people given the history of non-Indigenous interventions in Indigenous parenting responsibilities. This history includes the forced removal of Indigenous children; the role of eugenics in efforts to “breed out the colour” that included suggestions to sterilise Indigenous women, and finally state laws that disempowered Aboriginal people from making free decisions about how they could marry.
Hawthorn handed these findings over to the AFL, which responded by commencing an investigation of its own. Neither the Indigenous families who made the allegations nor the Hawthorn staff whose alleged actions caused distress believed the investigation was independent. As a result, the investigation proved incapable of completing the task the AFL had set it.
Many of those involved never got to tell their side of the story. If ever there was a need to reconfirm the AFL is utterly incompetent and out of its depth when it comes to dealing with matters of racism, this is it. On May 30, after months of stalemate, the AFL announced it would close the eight-month investigation, that there were no adverse findings against the former Hawthorn staff and that it had signed a settlement agreement with several of the Indigenous families involved. Some of those families will now pursue claims through the Australian Human Rights Commission.
In the end, the AFL and its investigation achieved nothing except an agreement that absolved itself from any responsibility and liability in the matters raised by the Indigenous families. Through their public relations machine, the AFL has again effectively situated themselves in the public imagination as the leading public institution in progressing national reconciliation and combating racism. In reality, the boys club that controls the AFL and how we imagine the national game past, present and future wouldn’t know how to enact meaningful reconciliation or tackle racism appropriately if they tripped over it.
Professor Barry Judd is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of Melbourne. He is a member of the Hawthorn FC and a member of the RAP Committee of the Richmond FC. He has previously been commissioned to undertake research work by the AFL. Professor Marcia Langton is foundation chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.
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