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Own goal as AFL again confronts racism

Football

Australian football is again being forced to deal with the issue it hoped had been banished from player ranks. Michelangelo Rucci reports.

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Racial vilification of Indigenous AFL players has risen to an alarming level in the past month.

Carlton forward and former Adelaide goalsneak Eddie Betts has been subjected to abuse every day – and the strain is showing.

“There has been a real spike in the last four weeks,” an AFL administrator told InDaily of the abuse loaded on unverified social media accounts.

“Why? We don’t know why.”

AFL clubs and the players’ union could be excused for programming their statements calling out racism to a computer function key, such is the repetitive use of the phrase: “This has to stop.”

If this is the one that was caught, you think of the ones that happen when you are not there.

It was Port Adelaide’s turn on Sunday, condemning racial slurring of South Sudanese refugee Aliir Aliir hours after he was lauded as best-afield in the derby with the Showdown Medal. Melbourne followed on Monday about remarks made on social media during the club’s AFL match against West Coast in Perth.

Australian football, in particular the professional AFL, has long known its own social campaign to stamp out racism has been a struggle. The constant jeering of Sydney great and Brownlow Medallist Adam Goodes across 17 consecutive weeks until his retirement in 2015 highlighted how much work was still to be done outside the white line that rings a football field.

But 2021 also has revealed the racism issue has not been cleared away inside the boundary, even after the most-detailed education processes in Australian sport.

The Collingwood Football Club started the year compelled to face up to an independent review on “systemic racism”. The Adelaide Football Club is finishing its season wracked by the racial slur uttered by its former captain Taylor Walker, as a spectator, during an SANFL game in mid-July.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, by his ill-chosen words in delivering the report on his club’s racism issues, was forced to resign. Walker’s future in the game is in doubt, despite a hard-earned one-year contract extension for next season.

The debate on Walker – his actions, those of the Adelaide official who stood firm on calling out the slur, Walker’s AFL’s penalty of six matches and a $20,000 donation to an Indigenous program, his scripted video apology and his uncertain future – is taking the focus off a more pressing debate.

A new generation of Indigenous footballers has entered the AFL in the past decade believing every one of their team-mates understood the damage caused by racism and was standing alongside them in the fight against racism.

Walker was one of the most-admired allies of Indigenous players, in particular Betts.

In April 2017 – after another Showdown had been marred by racial slurring that had been directed at Betts and Port Adelaide ruckman Patrick Ryder – Walker, as Adelaide captain, moved to fight the battle outside the boundary line.

In a conference telephone call between the Crows on-field leadership team and their Port Adelaide counterparts led by Travis Boak, it was agreed to have both clubs – players, coaches and key staff – stand together at Adelaide Oval to declare a united condemnation of racism.

Four years later, Walker’s much-admired leadership to forge a united front between two AFL clubs – two fierce rivals who rarely agreed on anything, even when servicing joint sponsors for Showdowns – is being questioned.

Even Walker accepted, in his much-critiqued video apology on Monday when he returned to Prospect Oval to sit alongside North Adelaide Robbie Young, the player at the centre of Walker’s racial slur, he has “lost trust and respect”.

Former AFL player Tony Armstrong highlighted how a white player seen as standing beside an Indigenous colleague “in the trenches” in the fight against racism has his sincerity and credibility questioned.

“It just makes us think (racism inside clubs) is rife,” he said.

“If this is the one that was caught, you think of the ones that happen when you are not there. And to be quite frank, we are all pretty angry.”

Armstrong played 14 AFL games as a Crow in 2010 and 2011 before finishing his national league story with 15 senior games at Sydney (2012-13) and six at Collingwood (2014-15). He knows Walker from junior, State with New South Wales and AFL campaigns.

Now a fast-rising television presenter and long known for his strong written commentary on racism in society and sport, Armstrong spells out how Walker’s remarks at Prospect Oval have echoed across the AFL’s indigenous community.

“I have started rethinking so many situations that I have been in,” Armstrong said.

“When I walked into a room – I am not saying stuff was happening – but you just start gas-lighting yourself because you are not sure what’s happening; not sure if other team-mates have pulled up racist comments, xenophobic comments that have happened when you are not there.

“It just starts ruminating in your mind.”

Armstrong notes “it is always Indigenous people taking the higher ground”.

“Always having to extend the olive branch and be the ones to help and educate,” said Armstrong adding it would have “taken a lot” for him to sit next to Walker this week.

“We have to always, with a smile on our faces, we are so often asked to be the ones to educate and not be angry.

“There is no place where there is more education than in the AFL,” added Armstrong echoing the same theme presented by Adelaide senior coach Matthew Nicks last week.

On Tuesday, Armstrong wrote on his social media account: “Sick of talking about this stuff.” Betts followed up with: “It hurts and it’s draining. It just keeps happening. I’m sick of it.”

And as the debate on Walker’s moment has fractured into seeming endless agendas, one leading indigenous leader with a long association in Australian football told InDaily: “I enjoy every discussion … you can’t pick and choose moments when you want to discuss racism and when you don’t. This conversation goes away too quickly.

“And when Indigenous Australians make up only three per cent of the population, the fight against racism is not one we can win unless we have more allies.”

AFL rule 35 – the so-called Peek rule named after long-serving AFL executive and former journalist Tony Peek who set up the mediation framework for the Long-Monkhurst settlement – demands confidentiality among players and officials during the investigation and resolution of racial vilification issues.

But there is no binding code of silence on those outside the AFL inner circle, as was well noted during the Walker incident that became public last Wednesday, more than 48 hours before the league’s integrity unit declared its findings and the AFL issued its penalties.

In question is just how much Australian football and Australian society will advance the fight against racism from thrashing out the “why” and “what next” of the Walker incident. Clearly, there is much work to do when the Adelaide official who took issue with Walker’s remark at Prospect Oval last month remains anonymous, rather than presented as a hero, both in the battle against racism and of the Crows’ internal culture while some fans and media commentators describe his actions as “dobbing”.

Racism in sport has its most notable chapter in Australian football in the VFL in the 1930s with Doug Nicholls. The AFL today celebrates an annual “Indigenous round” carrying the name of Sir Doug Nicholls, who became South Australia’s 28th Governor in 1976, four years after becoming the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted. He remains the only Indigenous Australian to serve in a vice-regal role.

Nicholls, a speedy wingman, overcame racial taunting on the football field and even in his own changerooms to become the first Indigenous player to represent Victoria in State football in 1935, almost 50 years after the game of Australian football was established.

The telling moments in Australian football being forced to confront its racist themes inside the boundary were in the 1990s. In 1993, St Kilda wingman Nicky Winmar proudly pointed at his skin after a brutal afternoon of taunts from Collingwood fans at Victoria Park in Melbourne. Essendon premiership hero Michael Long in 1995 called out Collingwood ruckman Damien Monkhurst in a groundbreaking stand against racial taunting among AFL players.

A decade ago, the AFL sent Adelaide champion Andrew McLeod to a United Nations session in Geneva to detail how far Australian football had moved in the fight against racism.

Speaking to McLeod at the start of the year when Collingwood’s review highlighted just how much was still to be done inside the boundary, McLeod said: “I’m still a firm believer that education is the best policy when it comes to dealing with these issues.

“If you were to simply base your assessment on the definition of education in the dictionary, then it would seem there is still some way to go.

“How can it be done better? I reflect on my old coach Neil Craig’s words that ring true in the way he used to challenge his players when he would say. ‘Ask yourself, If not me, who?’

“If you don’t take responsibility yourself to be the change, who do you expect to be the change.”

McLeod – later echoed by Goodes – noted long ago that “no-one is born a racist”. Clearly, many, for differing reasons, become racists.

Any review/analysis of the past week would leave every aspect of Australian football, not just Walker, challenged to deal with tough conversations.

Walker’s penalties are noted to be less severe than recent AFL findings for gambling on matches (22 matches with 12 suspended and a $20,000 fine to Jaidyn Stephenson in 2019 when the midfielder was at Collingwood).

But while Stephenson plays on with North Melbourne this season with no smear, Walker’s future is in question, as are his post-football opportunities in the media and in commercial endorsements. Even the Adelaide Football Club concedes there is no certainty today on Walker’s ability to return to the clubhouse.

The AFL, a decade after sending McLeod to the United Nations to proudly declare Australian football’s achievements in fighting racism on the field and setting up mediation protocols, is challenged to question the effectiveness of its education against all forms of vilification.

The AFL Players’ Association, the players’ union, certainly has been challenged after being so strong in its demand for heavy penalties against fans who racially abuse players from the terraces or on social media. The need to condemn one of its own has tested the union’s leaders – more so when Betts said at the weekend: “No matter who you are or what you do, when it comes to racism, everyone should be held accountable.”

And the Adelaide Football Club is needing to reassure and comfort its indigenous players, a process that began on Tuesday when an experienced Indigenous advocate with more than a decade of work at an AFL club counselled the Aboriginal members of the Crows squad.

Adelaide’s corporate sponsors, in particular Optus, are unsure if they can remain associated with the AFL club if Walker returns; a theme that forced McGuire to quit Collingwood after major club backer Nike took issue with McGuire’s clumsy presentation of the independent “Do Better” report on racism.

Meanwhile, the abuse of AFL players, with South Sudanese refugee Aliir joining Indigenous Australians in being vilified, continues on social media with increasing demands from AFL figures to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google to monitor posts and have verification processes with all accounts.

Port Adelaide assistant coach and former Crows defender Nathan Bassett noted this week “lots of people make following decisions to make comments (on social media) and more than foolish decisions, they make idiots of themselves”.

“Some will create an account to heckle someone,” Bassett said. “They do it because they think it will get a rise. It happens right across the AFL. It is racism this week. But there also are players copping heap because they did not kick the extra goal that completes a multi-bet.

“Or random abuse that we get because some people are looking for a response or some people are just dickheads.”

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