News

After a long history of AFL players of colour being abused and left unsupported by the league, it was not surprising when a report into Collingwood FC this week found systemic racism. Can Eddie McGuire start the process of doing better? By Daniel James.

Collingwood and racism in the AFL

Collingwood’s president, Eddie McGuire, addresses the media on Monday.
Credit: AAP Image / Luis Ascui

The year 1993 was a flashpoint in mainstream Australia’s relationship with First Peoples.

A year before, the Mabo v Queensland case in the High Court had removed the falsehood of terra nullius from the colonial history playbook, behind which so many miners, pastoralists and landowners had hidden.

The Keating government was in the arduous process of legislating and selling the resulting Native Title Act to a hostile general public in the face of a toxic scare campaign from the opposition and vested interests, which promulgated the line that Aborigines were coming after your house, your backyard, your way of life.

At the zenith of the debate, Collingwood played St Kilda at the Pies’ home ground, Victoria Park, on April 17, 1993. For four quarters, St Kilda players Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar endured racial abuse from Collingwood fans and members. It led to one of the most famous images in Australian sport, captured by photographer Wayne Ludbey, showing a proud and unrepentant Winmar lifting his guernsey and pointing out the colour of his skin to Collingwood members in the stands.

The incident generated an open discussion about racism in football, which wrenched the debate away from the rusted-on argument, “What happens on the field stays on the field.” It forced then Collingwood president Allan McAlister to address the matter in front of Melbourne’s football media, only for him to rail against accusations of racism.

McAlister closed his defence with, “… as long as they [Aboriginal people] conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them.”

In other words: just play football and don’t get too uppity. Nearly 30 years on, as Collingwood this week deals with the fallout of the “Do Better” report into racism at the club, it’s difficult to argue the organisation’s approach to matters of race has meaningfully changed.

The intervening decades have seen the Native Title Act, marches for Reconciliation, the apology to the Stolen Generations, royal commissions into youth detention, and perennial national debates about days of significance and Australian symbolism. First Nations artists, writers, academics and musicians are now so prominent in Australia’s cultural life.

Over this time, Collingwood Football Club itself has gone from a large suburban club to a slick commercial enterprise. It has, on average, the highest home ground attendance in the competition and in its president, Eddie McGuire, the highest-profile leader of a club the game has seen. On matters of race, though, the club continues to be embroiled in a cycle of incidents, on and off the field.

Collingwood premiership champion Héritier Lumumba has been a vocal opponent of the club’s treatment of people of colour. In 2013, Lumumba was the only Collingwood player to publicly speak out against McGuire after the Collingwood president’s infamous suggestion that Swans player Adam Goodes should promote the musical King Kong in the same week Goodes was racially abused by a Collingwood fan at the MCG.

In Lumumba, Collingwood was once again confronted with a Black man who was prepared to draw a line in the sand, in the tradition of players past.

Lumumba spoke out strongly this week, after details of the “Do Better” report was leaked to the media. He told the ABC’s 7.30, “My faith for the Collingwood Football Club, in the current regime that it has, is non-existent. I’ve been raising my concerns, voicing the countless experiences I have had with Collingwood, for almost eight years now.

“And I saw that there was a complete disconnect between what the club espoused to be and what the club was actually doing. When I raised these concerns with the faith that the concerns would be listened to, I was terribly wrong.”

Written by Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, a Yuwalaraay woman, and Professor Lindon Coombes, the “Do Better” report pulls no punches. It states clearly that Collingwood has a problem with systemic racism: “A selected short list of high-profile incidents is compelling and speaks to systemic racism of the kind that means the concerted efforts of individuals are not able to be translated into Club-wide change.”

Yet it’s also important to look at the role the Australian media played in vilifying Lumumba and exonerating Collingwood, says Aamer Rahman, a friend of Lumumba’s and a political comedian.

Case in point: the footballer’s now notorious interview with Network Ten’s The Project, after which hosts Peter Helliar and Waleed Aly cast doubt over Lumumba’s accusations of racism, instead choosing to toe the Collingwood line.

Rahman highlights the challenges one person has when standing up and speaking out against a powerful organisation, such as Collingwood, and a club president who dominates the Australian media landscape.

“Collingwood has at its disposal a PR department and Lumumba has to do the work of essentially a one-man media team to claw back his reputation,” Rahman says. “He doesn’t have a media team working for him.”

Peter Helliar this week apologised on Twitter for his comments, tagging Lumumba in the tweet. Many have called for Aly to do the same.

But as for Collingwood’s response to the report, Rahman dismisses it. “It is insulting to Nicky Winmar,” he says. “It’s insulting to Robert Muir, Michael Long, it’s insulting to everyone that this club has had a history of vilifying.

“To sit there and not acknowledge them and not acknowledge their pain … it’s exactly what the report accuses the club of doing, which is approaching racism as a PR problem and something to be dealt with silence rather than something to be approached with compassion and accountability.”

Late last year, McGuire made public that he would retire from the presidency of Collingwood at the end of the 2021 season. The announcement, it turns out, came two days after the “Do Better” report was handed to the club’s board.

As more detail of the report comes to light, calls for McGuire’s early removal are becoming louder by the day. It is impossible to separate the culture condemned by “Do Better” from the tenure of the man who has been Collingwood president for more than two decades. However, systemic racism isn’t fixed merely by removing the head of any given organisation or institution.

 

Think of the myriad changes of leadership within justice systems and police forces across the country in the 30 years since Nicky Winmar lifted his guernsey – yet Aboriginal people remain the most incarcerated by population on Earth.

Similarly, how much have Australian workplaces changed over the past 30 years? Like so many First Nations people who have worked in white-dominated spaces, I for one can attest to the trauma of a noxious work environment filled with people and systems closed off to people of colour.

As microcosms of society, football clubs can be no different. They are community hubs through which people from all walks of life ebb and flow, based on combinations of talent, determination and expertise. It is reasonable to assume that every club has its share of the fair-minded and the racist. But the bigger challenge for any organisation is not to let the corrosive racist views of some become the embedded toxic organisational culture for all.

And the AFL itself, as Lumumba pointed out this week, is not insulated from the problems that plague Collingwood. “I can guarantee you if the AFL was extensively audited, it would reveal even worse findings than the Collingwood Football Club,” Lumumba told the Nine newspapers.

Ronnie Heritage-Gorrie is a proud Kurnai woman, writer and campaigner against family violence and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody. She spent a decade working as a police officer and saw firsthand how racism can poison the culture of an organisation.

“Police actually compare arrest rates with each other, and the people who are easy targets for these multiple arrests are the vulnerable in the community, and these are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people who are Black or brown,” she says. “This is systemic racism…

“Systemic racism is a daily occurrence, deliberately targeting Black and brown people. We’re easy targets. The amount of times I heard racist comments towards my people. You’re just outnumbered, systemic racism disempowers you. There is no one you can turn to.

“What we need is more people calling it out,” she says.

In the case of Collingwood, Heritage-Gorrie says it’s clear the AFL Players Association needs more Aboriginal representation. “They have been silent since the report came out,” she says. “To be silent is to be complicit.”

Nicky Winmar refused to be silent in 1993, his public stand a gesture that spoke as loud as any words could. It was a particularly galvanising moment because Aboriginal players had endured so much over the preceding century. The abject racist abuse received on and off the field by players such as West Coast’s Chris Lewis. The first Aboriginal football umpire, Glenn James, who was threatened by a player in the 1970s who said he would burn his house down. Carlton legend Syd Jackson, who was booed every time he went near the ball. Sir Doug Nicholls, upon his arrival at Fitzroy in the 1930s, was refused a rub down from trainers because he was Black.

In 1993, it became clear that incidents such as this would no longer stay on field.

What is truly astonishing about the findings of the “Do Better” report is that as arguably Australia’s largest sporting club, in the country’s most popular competition, Collingwood, for close to 30 years has failed to heed any of the lessons offered by many players, including Lumumba.

Similarly, in Australia, after decades of forensic reports, royal commissions, enlightened attitudes and opening the national conversation on race, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to suffer poor health, a higher burden of disease, poor educational attainment and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

It shows how interwoven systemic racism is in the fabric of Australian society; while attitudes are changing, the story remains the same.

The open letter of apology late on Thursday from Collingwood’s players and staff, while welcome, will do little to address the substantive issues raised in the “Do Better” report.

“Through our silence we feel responsible for these injustices. We acknowledge it is not enough to simply show support for the principles of anti-racism and inclusion. We will confront the history of our club in order to learn, heal and determine how best to walk forward together,” the letter said.

The “Do Better” report reveals a great deal about Collingwood, the AFL and society. We must thank Héritier Lumumba and all the pioneers who came before him. Their acts of defiance merely ask fellow Australians to be decent, to reflect not only on our own actions but the context in which we conduct those actions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Culture shock".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Daniel James is a Yorta Yorta writer and a winner of The Horne Prize.