Addressing racism in the Australian Football League

The Collingwood Football Club commissioned Larissa Behrendt and Lindon Coombes to conduct an independent review into its responses to racism. Carissa Lee Godwin, First Peoples Editor, provides an overview of the report that has resulted in calls for the entire Australian Football League (AFL) to undertake a similar investigation due to the the game’s long history of racism, including towards First Nations people. 

Photo by Daniel Anthony on Unsplash

The review, conducted by Larissa Behrendt and Lindon Coombes at the University of Technology Sydney, was motivated by ex-Collingwood player, Heritier Lumumba’s public complaints of racism during his time at the club. Thirty interviews were conducted with people across the Collingwood Football Club (the Club) including executive staff, former players, coaching staff and First Nations members to gain insight into their experiences. The review found that “there is a gap between what Collingwood Football Club says it stands for and what it does.” This report, titled Do Better, illustrates how racism can be perceived as normal conduct and why organisations need to make sure that certain behaviours are addressed before they become part of their identity.

Key findings

The report states that while the Club has a unique history in relation to racism and racist incidents within the AFL, it was also observed, from several quarters internal and external to the CFC, they were well placed to adapt, change and lead in this space.

  1. Key criticisms made by those interviewed about the Club’s failure to address both incidents of racism and its structural racism were focused on the absence of clear and trusted avenues through which complaints could be made. The Club was more likely to react to media coverage about a racist incident than to complaints made from within.
  2. It was also important to acknowledge that while members have grown from learning about the incidents of racism within the Club environment, the people who raised them often remained ostracised and described it as a toxic environment. The members who experienced racism and had bravely challenged the culture of the Club highlighted the flaws in its processes and paid a high price for speaking out about their experiences. It has to be noted that observations in this report are consistent with many claims made by those who were aggrieved by the Collingwood’s culture, attitude and policies.
  3. People from within the Club are not the only ones who have struggled with the its lack of leadership on issues of racism, with several First Nations fans reflecting ‘It’s hard to be a Collingwood supporter.’
  4. It is important for the Club to embrace the perspective that ‘acknowledging, addressing and learning’ is an approach that leads to better outcomes than ‘denying and dismissing’ complaints of racism. The approach should be framed in a way that emphasises The Club’s values, incorporating the concepts of anti-racism and inclusion.

Key policy recommendations

The report states that the Club will be a better organisation if it comes to terms with its past, rather than attempt to move forward without looking back. Key recommendations in the report include:

  1. The Club’s Board needs to ensure the development of a framework for proactively responding to incidents of racism. This would involve reviewing and improving processes for addressing complaints of racism and protection for whistle-blowers.
  2. The Club needs to implement a framework to ensure accountability and consequences for acts of racism committed by members of its community. 
  3. Regular audits are to be undertaken of employment and anti-discrimination policies to ensure compliance with legal obligations in relation to a safe workplace.

In discussions held as part of this review, there was a genuine acknowledgement of past failures and a strong desire to do better. People external to the Club noted that it was made up of great people. However, good intentions on and off the field don’t have any significant meaning unless they are embraced and implemented.

Far-reaching benefits

Publications such as this year’s State of Reconciliation report are an effective way to check in with the progress of race relations in Australia, even when the outcomes are difficult to read.  As found in this year’s report: 43% of the broader community and 60% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people interviewed by Reconciliation Australia agreed that Australia remains a racist country. Through undergoing regular assessments, organisations such as the Collingwood Football Club will assist with ensuring racism and bullying is always being addressed and dealt with.

Throughout the course of the Do Better report, it became apparent that the Indigenous people who were engaged with the Reconciliation Action Plan Group were an untapped asset for the Club. Even while all of these people could speak to incidents of experiencing racism, they remained committed to seeing the Club do better.

The report recommends that further evaluation, including independent assessments, that present the progress against each of the recommendations be prepared by the Club each year. This will ensure that they remain relevant and dynamic and not grow static and outdated.

About the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection

This article was first published by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). ANZSOG works in partnership with APO to increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and history. This partnership includes support for the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection on APO, which is curated from a broad choice of key Indigenous policy topics and provides a valuable resource on Indigenous affairs, with a focus on diverse Indigenous voices.