- The Guardian
- Issue #2026
Statue of Nicky Winmar outside Perth Stadium, pointed to his skin. Photo: Michael Coghlan – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The shocking allegations regarding the treatment of three Indigenous football players and their families at Hawthorn Football Club – the so-called family club – are a stark reminder of the racism, exploitation, genocide, paternalism, and dispossession of the traditional owners of Australia’s lands.
The Australian Football League (AFL) has announced that it will appoint a four-person inquiry into the allegations against senior staff at Hawthorn. At least half of its members must be Indigenous for it to have any credibility or be acceptable to those making the allegations and the wider community.
Hawthorn had commissioned an external review into how Indigenous players were treated at the club. Its report has shaken Hawthorn supporters and brought into question the seriousness of the AFL in eliminating racism and providing a safe place for its Indigenous and other players of colour.
It was Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, that publicly revealed allegations raised in the review of three Indigenous players being bullied and told to choose between their football careers at the club and their families.
For these three young draftees in their first five years with the club, their dreams had come true. They loved playing the sport and had great careers ahead of them – a love of sport and aspirations shared by so many young Indigenous children. Dreams that were shattered as interviews with ABC Sport reveal.
They recounted stories of bullying, removal from their homes and relocation elsewhere, while being told they had to choose between a career and their family. They spoke of the subsequent trauma and the damage to their relationships.
The ABC reported that the findings of the review included allegations that leading Hawthorn figures demanded the separation of three young Indigenous players from their family “for the sake of their careers.” In two instances a couple was allegedly pressured to terminate a pregnancy.
“(Alistair) Clarkson [the head coach] just leaned over me and demanded that I needed to get rid of my unborn child and my partner,” one player told the ABC. “I was then manipulated and convinced to remove my SIM card from my phone so there was no further contact between my family and me.” His wife alleges that she was told that “it was better for [his] footy career if he didn’t become a father.”
Football (whichever code) at the elite level is big business. The clubs are operated as capitalist corporations where players are commodities to be traded and exploited to the point where their bodies give in. Their corporate sponsors (advertisers) have deep pockets and expect results for the money to keep flowing.
The removal of an Indigenous player from their family is a cruel act of racist paternalism.
Former AFL player Adam Betts told The Age newspaper that he had suffered racist comments every week of his career. “And when it comes to racism, we’re not moving forward – we’re going backwards. The sad thing is that I’m used to it. That’s the sad thing. We as Aboriginal people are used to it. And we keep fighting, but it’s hard.” (7th August, 2021)
“I need people to understand this is what we go through. This is what Aboriginal people deal with in our everyday lives. It doesn’t matter if you play AFL footy in the spotlight, or if you’re in the community,” he said.
“Racism doesn’t heal. No matter how many times … it just doesn’t heal. It stays with you forever,” Betts said. He is calling for every football club to review the history of the treatment of their Indigenous players following the allegations in the Hawthorn report.
“Aboriginal people, we’re not surprised … [because] we face these issues in many systems – in the education system, in the justice system, in the health system,” Betts said.
There is a history of racial slurs being hurled at Indigenous players in the AFL. One of the most memorable occasions was when Nicky Winmar proudly responded by lifting his jersey and pointed to his skin, shouting, “I’m black and I’m proud to be black.”
Michael Long and Adam Goodes are other well-reported examples. Long made a stand that led to the AFL adopting a racial abuse code. But the code did not end the racism. Goodes was subject to racist slurs in game after game with disgraceful inaction from AFL management. Racism in sport reflects racism in the wider community.
The structure of the AFL means that talented young Indigenous players are used up on the field and when their playing days are over, they are given a send-off and rarely heard from again.
It is time that Indigenous players and people are at every level of the game from highest administration to coaching and medical staff. There should be a pathway for Indigenous people to pursue a career in sports that lasts longer than playing days.
The greater the participation of Indigenous people in key positions, the less likelihood there is for the sort of scandals we are now facing.
There must be compulsory in-service training in cultural sensitivity and associated issues for all employees in AFL clubs and at the AFL headquarters.
Expulsions from club membership of clubs must be mandatory for anyone who gives vent to racist comments towards Indigenous players from the stands.
Racism in sport serves the interests of the media and advertising companies which have in recent years been compounded by the betting corporations’ intrusion into sport.
The exploitation of Indigenous workers/players and the wilful failure to respect the culture and human needs of Indigenous players is creating serious harm. It is time to stop racism at every level in sport.
The Communist Party of Australia stands in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their struggle for land rights, self-determination, and social justice.
In 2020 the CPA ran a postcard campaign condemning racism in the AFL during the Black Lives Matter campaign and we asked then and we ask again now: “When is the AFL going learn?”
It is time to end racism in sport.
It’s time to end racism!