The antithesis of healing: the AFL turns away from truth-telling again, ending Hawthorn investigation

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains mention of the Stolen Generations.

On April 18, a Ngarra Jarra Noun Healing Ceremony was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the most famous response to racism in the Australian Football League – the moment Noongar man Nicky Winmar lifted his top, pointed to his skin and declared that he was Black and proud. The Indigenous-led ceremony was a deeply moving instance of community care, love and solidarity.

Tuesday’s announcement by the AFL of the termination of the investigation into allegations of racism at Hawthorn was the antithesis of such healing.

After eight months of an inquiry there are “no adverse findings” against former coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan, and ex-welfare manager Jason Burt. (Clarkson, Fagan and Burt have all strenuously denied any wrongdoing.)

The outcome is at once shocking and not surprising of a league that still refuses to make any attempts to redress the systemic racism that remains a foundational aspect of Australian Rules football.

The Age reports that the complainants at the centre of the allegations are preparing to take their cases to the Australian Human Rights Commission. The AFL has also hinted it may charge Hawthorn with bringing the game into disrepute over its handling of the internal report.

Read more:
As the 2022 AFLM season comes to a close, the game must ask itself some difficult questions – especially on racism

Sorry timing

It’s hard not to be cynical about the release of this news after the conclusion of the Sir Doug Nicholls “Indigenous round”, and Sorry Day. Only after the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander players and culture, and the commemoration of Indigenous children stolen from their families, did the AFL announce it was ending its investigation.

Indeed, the claims at the centre of the investigation resonate disturbingly with the histories of stealing Indigenous children and associated genocidal actions in the lands of this continent and the surrounding islands.

Namely, the allegations that Hawthorn officials actively sought to separate Indigenous players from their partners, pressured them to break up and in at least one instance allegedly pushed a couple to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of the player’s career, according to reporting by the ABC.

If the allegations are true, it could be argued the Hawthorn officials who were involved thought they were acting in the “best interests” of the players.

However, the theft of children, including Doug Nicholls’ sister, was frequently justified in such terms. As was the tearing apart of Indigenous families and placing them in reserves for their own “protection”.

Clarkson and Fagan in August 2015.
Clarkson and Fagan in August 2015.
Julian Smith/AAP

To break Indigenous couples up, to remove Indigenous players from their cultural support and to then place these players in houses with only white people – all of these would be heinous acts if true, and can be understood as a form of cultural genocide. That is, acts of “assimilation” that destroy the relationships, connections and practices which allow people to continue to be part of a broader cultural group.

How could the AFL not wish to find out the truth of the matter when the allegations concern such egregious conduct?

The AFL claims it shut down the investigation in accordance with the wishes of the players willing to participate in the inquiry. But after eight months, these players had not even been interviewed.

Outgoing AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan also claimed that the defendants had been “cleared” and the complainants “feel heard”. Yet, their voices were starkly missing from the AFL’s announcement.

(Not) listening to Indigenous voices

On March 17, the AFL announced it supported the “Yes” vote for the forthcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, stating:

The AFL is privileged to have a long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in our game, from the grassroots in every state and territory, through to the AFL and AFLW competitions.

Yet, in electing to set up its own investigation into the allegations of racism at Hawthorn, the AFL was clearly going against the voices of key Indigenous women at the centre of these allegations. They had called for an inquiry that was fully independent of the AFL.

And in declaring Clarkson, Fagan and Burt to have been cleared – without even having interviewed the players participating in the inquiry – the AFL is ignoring the voices of players and partners who have spoken out publicly, as recently as this past weekend.

Such behaviour is similar to that of the colonial governments on this land who have still not implemented most of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and who continue to remove Indigenous children from their families and incarcerate Indigenous kids and adults at ever-increasing rates.

The erasure of Indigenous women’s voices and experiences is also emblematic of life on this continent. Indigenous women in Australia are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, yet the violence they experience receives far less attention.


McLachlan’s tenure as CEO of the AFL has been marked by a stream of scandals regarding racism, yet he has never opened up the whole league to full independent scrutiny regarding past and present racism.

What’s clearly needed is for the AFL to engage in a full process of truth-telling. The AFL Players Association is the most recent group to note that the AFL’s investigation into Hawthorn was “not truly independent”.

Colonial institutions cannot be relied upon to provide justice when investigating themselves. The lack of even one conviction related to the more than 500 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission published its findings and recommendations is testament to that.

Instead, a form of truth-telling overseen by an independent Indigenous-run organisation is paramount. The Yoorook Justice Commission – set up to examine the “impacts of colonisation on First Peoples in Victoria” – is an excellent model of what such a process could look like.

Incoming AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon has proclaimed he is not part of a (white) boys club. A test of this claim lies in whether he is willing to take the necessary steps to help turn the AFL from being a place of systemic injustice to an organisation that creates the conditions for systemic justice and healing.

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