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Judge, jury, executioner — the AFL’s iron grip authority is being challenged

The AFL has discovered being judge, jury and executioner in an investigation into itself is no longer acceptable, and its authority is being challenged by those at the heart of the game’s latest racism furore with the Federal Government watching developments closely.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has been unable to deliver on his promise to name an investigative panel within 24 hours of “harrowing” abuse allegations by First Nations players at the Hawthorn Football Club, with no agreement in place as to what the process will involve, nor confirmation of who will oversee it.

The allegations include players being removed from their family homes, sim cards being changed in their mobile phones to prevent contact with partners and family members, and in one instance a player pressured to have his partner’s pregnancy terminated.

One of the accused, former Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson who has denied any wrongdoing, released a second statement this week, also stating he was “trying to retain [his] trust” in the AFL’s proposed investigation.

All parties remain in limbo heading into a second week since the story broke, with the AFL’s most senior staff frantically trying to find a solution with a growing realisation they may have to cede control to an outside entity, possibly the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Gillon McLachlan addresses the media regarding allegations made against Hawthorn Football Club.(Getty Images: Morgan Hancock)

The AFL is renowned for maintaining complete control over every aspect of the sport including the investigation of complaints through its Integrity Unit.

Running such a tight ship is seen as a source of pride for many in a code that boasts the biggest crowds, the biggest television rights deals, and many of the most watched television programs in a sports-bloated country.

Others, though, have questioned how a sport can constantly investigate itself with little to no consequence for those who’ve overseen the response to a swelling number of racism scandals.

An external game-wide review may be the only way to address systemic failings that have continued under the watch of AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder and McLachlan.

The lack of movement in this case is being monitored by several federal government ministers.

Federal Sports Minister Anika Wells pointed to the Hawthorn scandal in announcing on Friday a new division at Sport Integrity Australia to be known as the Safety in Sport division.

It is expected to be operational on January 1, 2023. That is too late for the those at the centre of this saga, but it is a warning to all sports that how those in charge handle such issues in future will be under closer scrutiny from the external government agency.

Government funding may be withheld from national sports bodies if they fail to sign on to compliance measures giving SIA authority to investigate should it be necessary.

In an opinion piece published in the Australian newspaper, Anika Wells listed several recent examples of the abuse of power in sport – including the systemic racism reported in Collingwood’s ‘Do Better’ review, as, “Appalling. Shocking. Damning. Frequent”.

A brown and gold flag carrying the Hawks' logo flies
The next steps in the Hawthorn investigation have yet to be confirmed.(Getty Images: Michael Dodge)

Minister for Science and Industry Ed Husic was asked on the ABC’s Q and A program whether it was time for the federal government to take the Hawthorn racism investigation out of the hands of the AFL in the interests of independence.

“The issue is how long and how often the AFL has these allegations put to them and if they worked as furiously on this issue as they do to get new TV rights, maybe we’d get somewhere,” Mr Husic said.

“When it means something to them, they work real hard, and I think on this they are not working as hard.

“If it does take an independent investigation, you put that on the table and obviously we’ll take that on board, but there is a strong level of feeling about this.”

Other senior ministers are also monitoring developments in the AFL investigation.

What happens now?

There are two investigations required – the first into events alleged to have happened to players and their families at Hawthorn, and the second into the treatment of First Nations people across the game of Aussie Rules more broadly.

The lead author of Collingwood’s ‘Do Better’ review, Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, told The Ticket that the AFL’s vilification framework has seen a change in player-on-player behaviour, but the challenges arise when the focus is turned to internal sports cultures and governance structures.

Alastair Clarkson wears a grey jacket and looks pensive
Alastair Clarkson has denied any wrongdoing.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

Behrendt says it is “particularly hard” for individuals taking on the system.

“Individual cases where there has been a grievance due to racial discrimination or vilification can often include issues of employment law, human rights law, racial discrimination law, and there may be a case of defamation,” she said.

“One series of incidents that are racist or sexist or homophobic actually trigger a whole range of legislative protections … the law has said this person should be protected but we’re seeing through these incidents their rights are being violated in a whole range of ways.”

The ABC understands there has been discussions about a potential hybrid model, establishing an independent group of contracted experts who are culturally aware, able to bring understanding and workplace experience to the investigation.

From the systems that already exist, a racial discrimination complaint could be lodged directly with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) by the aggrieved Hawthorn players and family members, or an agent acting on their behalf.

A process of conciliation would follow.

The commission is also equipped to handle both localised investigations and conduct sports-wide reviews, such as the Racial Equality Review of Basketball Australia it completed in 2021.

Such culture reviews are conducted in partnership with the sport’s governing bodies, although it is unlikely the AFL would willingly expose itself to such scrutiny nor pay for it, as is required.

There are other organisations that operate internationally such as the global not-for-profit, Sport Resolutions.

The search for an adequate, international model to deal with all forms of abuse in sport is much needed.

This week, in a public statement from the general secretary of FIFPRO — the players’ association representing soccer players around the world — Jonas Baer-Hoffmann could have just as easily been talking about the AFL:

“The acknowledgement of the need for such an international agency also reflects the acceptance that for many players currently sport is not a safe environment,” the FIFPRO boss posted on Twitter.

“Doing everything within your power to prevent, investigate and prosecute abuse, while providing adequate support to victims, survivors and whistle-blowers is absolutely a fair and appropriate demand.

“Many sport organisations – clubs, leagues, federations – have not done that and are not ready to do that.

“Often they have isolated and ostracised victims. Ignored whistle-blowers. Punished half-heartedly. Moved on like nothing happened.”

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How has the AFL continued to fail?

The AFL’s Vilification framework says:

“The AFL industry does not tolerate vilification in any form and is committed to ensuring safe, welcoming and inclusive environments for all people involved in Australian Football.”

The evidence suggests the sport is failing to uphold its stated position.

It failed two-time Brownlow medallist and great of the game Adam Goodes.

He walked away from the game in 2015 and vowed to have nothing more to do with it on the back of years-long, sustained booing every time he touched the ball after calling out racist abuse from the crowd.

It failed First Nations players who were told at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that they required extra vaccinations in order to play.

An AFL player holds his arms out to the sides while on the field.
Heritier Lumumba has previously spoken of the “systemic nature of racism in the AFL”.(AAP Image/Theron Kirkman)

It failed Heritier Lumumba. He wrote of the ‘systemic nature of racism in the AFL’ when describing his experiences in 2017.

It failed Joel Wilkinson. His well-documented, decade-long fight for justice remains unresolved, telling The Ticket “it’s clear that those in charge aren’t capable, they have failed”.

“In any other environment if you fail this consistently you are fired or you are removed from these processes,” Wilkinson said.

The list of failures goes on: Cyril Rioli, Eddie Betts, Patty Ryder, Majak Daw — players who have publicly detailed their experiences, but for what?

All of them hoped by speaking publicly about matters that have scarred them, they may prevent such damaging behaviour being inflicted on others.

Each time their hope is shattered their fears are realised.

No matter how reputable and distinguished the panel of investigators may be, no matter how exemplary their reputations are, if they are appointed by the AFL they will be burdened with the baggage of an organisation that has failed too many times before.

There are many both inside and outside the game who believe now for the sake of the players and their families, for the sake of the accused, and for the sake of the game it is time an external body investigates.

After all, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.