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Racism In Footy And The Battle To Remove It

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The past couple of weeks have seen racial slurs through social media against high profile AFL players. The latest target has been Port Adelaide’s Aliir Aliir. Before that, St Kilda’s Brad Hill and Richmond’s new recruit, Matthew Parker. This is just a week on from St Kilda’s Paddy Ryder being trolled in a similar manner. Hawk 400-gamer, Shaun Burgoyne has led a chorus of condemnation, and the brilliant documentary from former Essendon star, Nathan Lovett-Murray called The Ripple Effect hammers home the toll of racism on indigenous people everywhere.

The AFL recently released their media response to the surge in racist actions against footballers. The extended letter, which condemns racial vilification in all forms, contains the following:

“The AFL strongly condemns racial vilification in the football community including our players, staff, and their families, across all levels of our game.”

“The recent incidents are harmful. Acts of racism can trigger trauma and seriously impact the mental health of the individuals, families and communities involved. Racist actions and behaviours are inexcusable.”
The tone and language, and especially the sentiment here, are absolutely spot on, as is the rest of the letter. It echoes the days also of the vilification towards Michael Long, Nicky Winmar and countless other players, high profile or otherwise, who have endured the low acts of racists. Long’s initiative “The Long Walk” and its connection to the Dreamtime Round is testament to the power of unity to fight racism. The images of Winmar stand as iconic for not only indigenous pride, but also a stand against racism.

But for all of the support from an overwhelming majority of fans, there is a minority who still hold a place in footy. An unwanted place, but a place spurred on by the recent actions of Adelaide’s Tex Walker and others. It is a voice that remains almost unidentifiable and safely hidden.

Tellingly, the AFL’s statement also contains the line, “we know that we cannot eradicate racism”. In context, that line is part of a greater statement which says that despite knowing they cannot remove the stain, they will still endeavour to try. But it still hints at a nasty underworld that exists and will possibly always exist. That is the saddest reality of racism. Its very insidious nature is in fact its strength.

The recent application of the Peek Rule (formerly known as Rule 30/35) which predicates on the basis that the AFL will stand up to racial vilification and aspire towards a “safer and more inclusive environment for everyone in our game", steps in the right direction. But it is unclear how it’s message will negate the actions of a racist, a bigot, a hater, a person who believes it is their unalienable right to seek power over others.

Rather than simply have a point of view, I have to go back to my years from 2001 to 2018 when involved directly in club level junior coaching. I will add for emphasis “junior” coaching.

As a coach of a team in Cairns called Pyramid Power (and before that Cairns Hawks) I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of spectators. Racists were a minority, yes, but they existed and made their points to ugly and damaging effect. The language used towards kids who were indigenous was beyond horrid. But the power of “benefit of the doubt” was the vilifiers ally. As the laws stood then, the onus was on the vilified to prove that they were abused. Unless we as a club could provide evidence that spectators had used racial language or threats, it never happened. This was where racism was able to grow unimpacted by laws or even rules. If you didn’t see or hear a tree fall in the forest, did it actually fall?

One evening at a Cairns football ground where the alcohol consuming area was adjacent to the playing area, my team was playing under lights. Just playing football – hard, but fair. They received barbs all night which continued to highlight their skin colour (my team was 95% indigenous). They were also called names in association with their skin colour that are unacceptable in society in general – let alone towards 15-16 year old kids/youths. With so few volunteers available, we didn’t have the resources to nail the racists and as such we could not mount any more than a circumstantial case to say these events even happened. Racism won that night.

The sadder reality is that my example is just one of, I would imagine, hundreds or thousands played out nationally each year. The racists hide, reasonably confident that the worst that can happen is a slap on the wrist. A fine, a membership torn up. There isn’t anything in place to hammer racists in a legal setting where meaningful consequences can be applied.

This isn’t a critique of the AFL’s statements. It is just another reflection of how racism has always thrived across the world in all settings. More galling is that I have read, on social media especially, that whites are fully entitled to vilify, because a person of colour once vilified them. Fair’s fair, they say.

Well, those poor souls who believe that they have every right to vilify simply do not understand, and never will, how for the most part those vilified have experienced that vilification for generation after generation and almost always as part of a show of superiority, sustained superiority, where power is in the hand of the vilifiers.

Those same minds that attacked my kids also attacked Aliir Aliir, Michael Long, Nicky Winmar and every indigenous or coloured player, fan or human being.

Every voice that stands against racism, in any way, is fighting for a cause that simply has to be won. This is a sporting story, so a sporting language is probably valid. The fight is not over. The AFL has taken a stand, as have the vast majority of players, clubs, fans, people.

But beneath the surface of unity and desire to correct such wrongs, racism boils. It is driven by varying degrees of hate, fear, prejudice, history, personal experiences, peer pressure and more. It isn’t genetic, though. It is a human construct. Humans created racism. In turn, only humans can eradicate it.

The battle has to continue, but the emphasis might need to shift away from the naming, shaming, consequence driven approach and go deeper. In reality, the cure for racism, likely lives in a dark place and a sad place that inhabits the psyche of the individual. A cure to racism may need to become the domain of psychology.

To remove racism, in footy or beyond, might need a shift in the playing fields of the mind. But as it stands, racism will continue to rear its ugly, hateful and damaging head as long as the racist can remain largely hidden. That is why social media is now such a hotbed – you can hide behind a keyboard.

Every step forward is just that – each small win against racism gets us closer to where we need to be. But as the AFL alludes to, they cannot eradicate rasicm. But they can lead the way for the rest of us to follow and worker harder and harder, better and better, deeper and deeper to try.

Sadly, whilst that happens we will still see the racist appear. That is the most galling part of this argument.

However, we cannot ever stop. I want to see a day where kids can play without fear of racial vilification whilst they are simply doing what they love.

It isn’t impossible. But it is hard. Bloody hard! But it is worth the battle.