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A new documentary on footballer Héritier Lumumba calls out systemic racism in the AFL but also holds a mirror up to endemic problems in Australian society. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Héritier Lumumba’s ‘Fair Game’

Héritier Lumumba, with Nick Maxwell (left), during his time with Collingwood Football Club.
Credit: COURTESY SBS

Australian football is an integral part of Australian identity and Australian culture.

Those are the words of Héritier Lumumba, at the start of his documentary, Fair Game, which airs on SBS this weekend.

The former AFL player makes one simple, unsurprising revelation in this documentary: that racism exists within the very structure of Australian football. For evidence, he points to the nickname he was given by teammates. It was “Chimp”.

Lumumba – who is the son of a Brazilian mother and Congolese father – recalls how he tolerated this nickname to fit in.

The club says the nickname did not last for long and was the result of an incident at a party attended by Lumumba and a group of other players.

By his own admission, a former captain of Collingwood, Nick Maxwell, says he was unaware that the word “hurt” Lumumba because he never expressed hurt openly.

Here is a note for Maxwell and for everyone else reading: this is how racism works.

For years, the AFL has been dogged by allegations of racism. It’s a league that considers itself progressive, with rounds dedicated to all manner of inclusion – through the Indigenous round, Multicultural round, Pride game, and so on. The message behind this is supposed to be that everyone, from every walk of life, is welcome in this sport that carries the name “Australian”.

To understand AFL – as Lumumba points out – is to understand Australian culture. This is a sport with Indigenous origins. According to historians at Monash University, the game’s founder, Tom Wills, grew up in an Indigenous community in Victoria as the only white child in the district. He spent his childhood playing with Aboriginal children and speaking their language.

Professor Jenny Hocking told the ABC that after Wills travelled to England to study at Rugby School, he returned to Australia where he designed a modified version of rugby suited for Australian conditions.

This modified version of marngrook “bore a striking resemblance to Indigenous football, which involves two sides keeping a ball in the air as much as possible by kicking it perpendicularly from the hands, and then celebrating those who marked the ball”, wrote ABC journalist Malcolm Sutton.

Despite the historical evidence, the AFL has yet to acknowledge the Indigenous influence on the sport.

This is how racism works.

According to the documentary, the moment that led to Héritier Lumumba taking a stand against discrimination within the league came during a match against Adam Goodes’s Sydney Swans, when he witnessed a teenage girl racially abuse Goodes by calling him an “ape”. Goodes, one of the sport’s most celebrated Indigenous players, stopped play to point out the girl to security, which led to her being ejected from the game. Ironically, the match was being played during the league’s Indigenous round.

Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire – who only days later would become embroiled in a similar saga of his own – jumped to defend the girl’s ignorance. “She didn’t even know it was the Indigenous round,” he said. “She was a 13-year-old girl from … country Victoria, she had no idea what she was doing, what she was saying, or anything else.”

This is how racism works.

Despite having been an ambassador for multiculturalism within the AFL, Lumumba now views the role as tokenistic. In an interview with Fairfax Media to promote Fair Game, he said he lost confidence approaching anyone within the AFL about issues to do with race.

“There was no one to go to and protocols were outdated,” he said. “The players’ association visit the clubs once a year. They don’t talk about racism, they talk about racial vilification. It was always, ‘Don’t say this, you can’t say that.’ And the AFL itself doesn’t really understand racism.”

Earlier this year, the AFL Players’ Indigenous Advisory Board, which represents Indigenous players in the league, issued an exasperated plea for an end to the abuse after two Indigenous players were subjected to racist abuse.

“To the football community,” the letter read. “How long must we put up with this? Racial vilification has been a part of our game for too long. That both Eddie [Betts] and Patrick [Ryder] were abused because of the colour of their skin is absolutely unacceptable and we … have had enough.”

The letter went on to say that the abuse had an impact not only on the players, but on their families and the wider Indigenous community.

The AFL responded by condemning the incidents.

AFL boss Gillon McLachlan said: “We’ve come a long way on-field and we’ve come a long way off-field. But there are still isolated instances and we are going to keep tackling them, we’re going to keep calling them out.”

In a Facebook post, Lumumba said the systemic nature of racism within the AFL is evident “in the operation of Recruitment and List Management departments of football clubs; the management of players by agents; the AFL’s failure to protect its highest profile Aboriginal player, Adam Goodes, from ongoing racism that effectively ended his career”.

Following the “ape” incident, Eddie McGuire suggested on his radio show that Adam Goodes be used to promote the musical King Kong. McGuire apologised publicly, but said he would not consider stepping down. “It’s as simple as this. It was said, and I do not resile from that situation. I’ve put my foot in it,” he said. “People don’t resign because they make a slip of the tongue. It’s as simple as that.”

Lumumba condemned McGuire for the comments publicly. This was especially pointed: at the time, McGuire was his club chairman.

Instead of being lauded for the courage it took for Lumumba to stand up to authority, he was widely criticised and accused of using the incident to build his profile. “Eddie is a powerful man,” sportswriter Mark Robinson says. “Maybe too many people would be reluctant to take Eddie on.”

This is how racism works.

Since Lumumba’s experience has been made public, critics have moved to dismiss it and divert the narrative. This serves as a distraction from addressing and having conversations about systemic racism. Racism is not simply about people being bad or mean or ill intentioned, about angry bigots carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville.

To understand racism is to understand power. It is the power that determines how resources and opportunities are distributed across racial and ethnic groups; the power that excludes people from accessing services or taking part in employment, education, sport and social activities.

It is the power to punish, as was the case for Lumumba, when authority is questioned. And it is the same power that shapes narratives about certain groups of people.

It takes great power to reframe a “racist” comment as a “slip of the tongue”. This is the power that can frame some groups as “angry, arrogant” for the sake of justifying racial vilification. These are the narratives that can say because someone was called “chimp” in jest, that doesn’t make it bad. The narratives that can reward Lumumba for bringing his “different athleticism, dark skin and hair” to the sport and vilify him for talking about the pain of that difference. The narratives that can condemn racism yet characterise its occurrence as “isolated instances”.

It is a state of moral sickness when time and again we are shown that these are not isolated incidents, but, rather, point to much larger structural problems, and yet we refuse to do anything about it.

The AFL is but a microcosm of what we are willing to confront and acknowledge about racism in this country. And like the sport itself, many of those issues can only be reconciled by acknowledging what led to their creation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2017 as "Borne identity". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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