Hawthorn’s interaction with Indigenous players is a reminder that off-field issues need to be better addressed

As Australia’s biggest sporting league and one that has enjoyed the presence of many First Nations players for decades, including many of its best, how the AFL and its clubs respond to issues relating to race helps illustrate our progress as a nation.

At face value, allegations reported by the ABC, made from a commissioned review about the experience of current and former First Nations players and staff at Hawthorn, appear damning if they are proven true.

The allegations include Hawthorn pressuring a First Nations player to encourage his partner to terminate their pregnancy for the sake of his career, players being encouraged to remove SIM cards from their phones and insert new ones to end contact with their partners and players being relocated to end relations with partners.

Hence, the AFL has appointed an investigation panel – said to include a King’s Counsel – to address the serious allegations made against Hawthorn, including Alastair Clarkson (head coach from 2005 to 2021) and Chris Fagan (assistant coach from 2008 to 2016) who have since stood down from their pending and current coaching duties with North Melbourne and Brisbane until the investigation is completed.

I have no intention of accepting or refuting the allegations.

If the allegations turn out to be accurate in their most damning form, then the club and individuals should indeed be subject to serious punishment.

But, in line with my view that anyone accused of wrongdoing needs to be heard in line with the logical concept of natural justice, it is unbelievable that any review in the first place would not seek answers from the accused that are mentioned by the First Nations players.

I also find it staggering that key Indigenous players and senior players at Hawthorn were also ignored by the review for comment to confirm or deny the allegations.

For example, Hawthorn’s great Indigenous player Shaun Burgoyne, the first First Nations footballer to play 400 AFL games after finishing his career at Hawthorn from 2010 to 2021, was unaware of the events.

At a grand final luncheon in Melbourne on Wednesday, Burgoyne said, “It’s very confronting, to be honest, to see that and hear that, because I had no knowledge of those instances ever happening.

“I was never involved. I was never asked. This is the first I’ve heard of it.

“So it’s very confronting considering I was there and I wasn’t involved in any of it. Because I would have helped and I would have definitely been able to hopefully prevent some of those things from happening.”

Shaun Burgoyne

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Current Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell, who played for Hawthorn between 2002 and 2016, said, “I’m very much like everyone else. I got a heads up yesterday that something was coming out.

“And when I woke up and read it this morning I was upset … the word ‘disturbed’ was probably accurate.”

In a lot of ways, we all want to believe that goodness drives the motives of the sporting individuals we admire.

My own hope is that no modern sporting coach would carry out the allegations presented by the report. I want to believe that the Hawthorn coaching staff were trying to deal with difficult issues but that their advice ended up having harsh consequences through a misunderstanding by the young players.

Hence, in this sense, I agree with Cam, who commented about perspective and guilt on Tim Miller’s article on Thursday calling for Clarkson and Fagan to be sacked.

“I coached at a rugby club where one of our players lost his way and ended up doing 12 months in prison.

“On his release, his employer insisted he rejoin the club as part of his employment agreement. He felt the support of his teammates would be a good influence and help in his rehabilitation.

“In a meeting with myself, the player and his employer, it was also decided he change phone numbers in an effort to distance himself from destructive influences, particularly drug dealers and junkies (some of which were relatives of his).

“Our man was able to get his life back on track and in a fairytale finish of sorts, scored a solo try late in the GF to win us a premiership.

“But without knowing the full story, you could fast-forward to a headline ‘Club changes player’s phone to distance player him from family’.”

Alastair Clarkson

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

My perspective may be a bit rosy, but I do believe that attitudes from AFL clubs towards First Nations players have improved, as they have within Australian society.

This was my biggest grievance with the Do Better report which, having made much of racist incidents at Collingwood over the years to represent “structural racism”, downplayed the recent proactive policies that had been made at Collingwood in recent years.

For example, Collingwood implemented the following:

  • A bullying policy and a social media and networking policy, which from 2020 also highlighted both direct (interpersonal) and indirect (structural) racism;
  • the Barrawarn program, which includes cultural awareness training for staff to provide information and a deeper understanding of different cultures and their experiences;
  • a First Nations board member;
  • an Indigenous position on staff (the manager for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs) to focus on education programs and cultural activities throughout the club; and
  • a reconciliation action plan across its football and netball teams to oversee progress to include senior leadership of the club and highly respected members of the Indigenous community.

However, with the serious allegations levelled at Hawthorn, although the degree of harassment is yet to be determined, there remains evidence of ongoing difficulties with regard to a sporting club balancing its playing performance needs with First Nations player concerns.

We already know of shortcomings of Hawthorn policy from comments made in recent days, which may also still be the case at other AFL clubs.

If senior First Nations players were not involved in the interaction between Hawthorn and young Indigenous players, then it is clear that the club was taking an active approach on a player-by-player basis.

I do not think that is good enough.

Given the problems associated with race relations, not to mention that any undue pressure is also relevant to all young players, any interaction between Hawthorn and First Nations players should have included representatives from the senior player group to enhance communication, understanding and outcomes.

The reality that senior players were never part of the interaction between Hawthorn and First Nations players appears a bit odd and unprofessional, especially after the considerable adverse publicity given to Collingwood by the Do Better report.

As it stands, it may well be that AFL clubs will also now have to record all interactions with First Nations players and have a third party present.

It is not about different cultures not trusting each other. It is about ensuring that any club advice is both transparent and sensible so that all players are better equipped to deal with any private dilemma in the most appropriate way, especially when it concerns family issues, which are important to any young player.

Despite the competitive nature of professional sport, this would be a wiser way for AFL clubs to move forward to both avoid adverse situations and further improve race relations by encouraging the participation of many First Nations players to build further upon the gains of recent decades.

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