The Washington Post

‘Harrowing’ claims of racism, bullying rock Australian rules football league

The country’s most popular sport again sees serious allegation­s

- BY FRANCES VINALL Michael E. Miller in Sydney contribute­d to this report.

melbourne, australia — Australian rules football was rocked on Wednesday by allegation­s of racism and bullying toward Indigenous players, the latest in a string of incidents to roil the country’s most popular sport.

Indigenous players for the Hawthorn Hawks claimed coaches pressured them to stop seeing their partners and, in one case, to have a partner’s pregnancy terminated, to focus on training, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasti­ng Corp.

The Australian Football League (AFL) announced it would appoint an independen­t panel to investigat­e the claims, and two coaches named in the report stepped aside pending the results.

“What we have seen today is a challengin­g, harrowing and disturbing read,” AFL chief executive Gillon Mclachlan said in a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s hard to find more serious allegation­s.”

The AFL is the most-watched profession­al sports league Down Under. Its grand final often draws more viewers than any other TV program. For Australian­s, especially in southern states, it draws the fanatic membership reserved for the NFL and NBA in the United States, and soccer in Latin America.

The ABC report comes on the heels of an internal review commission­ed by the Hawks, which has not been publicly released. The allegation­s center on the tenure of the club’s former head coach, Alastair Clarkson, between 2005 and 2021.

One player told the ABC that Clarkson and two others went with the player to his house and broke up with his pregnant girlfriend on his behalf. They had reportedly told him she was holding him back from reaching his full potential as a player and that he wasn’t spending enough time socializin­g with the team.

Two players claimed they were pressured into switching the SIM cards in their phones so their partners couldn’t contact them.

One player said that when his girlfriend became pregnant, he was excited to share the news with the club. But Clarkson “demanded” the pregnancy be terminated, and that the player break up with his girlfriend and move into the home of an assistant coach, the player told the ABC.

The player’s then-girlfriend told the ABC that she was told by another club official that Hawthorn had decided it was better for his football career “if he didn’t become a father.”

The players were not identified in the ABC report.

Clarkson said he was “shocked” by the allegation­s, which he denied.

“I was not afforded any due process and I refute any allegation of wrongdoing or misconduct,” he said in a statement. Clarkson said he was not interviewe­d as part of the club’s review and would “look forward to the opportunit­y to be heard as part of the AFL external investigat­ion.”

Clarkson, who is now the head coach of another club, North Melbourne Kangaroos, said he would “step back” from his responsibi­lities to cooperate with the inquiry.

Chris Fagan, a former assistant coach at Hawthorn named in the ABC report, took a leave of absence from the Brisbane Lions, where he is now head coach, pending the results of the investigat­ion.

Tony Armstrong, an Indigenous sports presenter and former AFL player, said on the ABC on Wednesday that the report came at a difficult time for Indigenous people, with recent incidents, including the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’S death, raising painful memories of the injustices Indigenous Australian­s have endured since British colonizati­on.

“The allegation­s themselves are very, very concerning; there’s going to be a lot more to play out,” he said. “I just want to send my love to all First Nations people who are out there reading this.”

Aussie rules, as the sport is known here, was influenced by an Aboriginal game and is popular among Indigenous Australian­s. But the sport has been hit repeatedly by accusation­s of racism.

Last year, the president of another club, Collingwoo­d Magpies, resigned after a report decried structural racism at the club. The report was commission­ed after a Black player claimed he was given a racist nickname and endured frequent racist jokes. Aboriginal Aussie rules star Adam Goodes was subjected to years of boos after he had a young fan ejected for calling him an ape in 2013. The AFL apologized to Goodes in 2019.

Shelley Ware, an Indigenous media personalit­y who comments on the AFL, said the latest allegation­s should spur every club to undergo an external review focusing on racism.

“It should be across the board,” she said. “And I hope that the voices and the strength of the families that have spoken up give other families that voice to speak up.”

Nerita Waight, chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said in a statement that “the players cited in this story were a long way from home, country and family, and should have been able to place their trust and safety in the hands of the club.”

“Unfortunat­ely, I cannot be shocked by these revelation­s,” she added, citing the treatment of Goodes and other players of color.

In a statement, the Hawks said the club had commission­ed external First Nations consultant­s to liaise with current and former Indigenous players and staff to learn more about their experience­s. Chief executive Justin Reeves said in a news conference that the findings were a surprise and the allegation­s were “extremely disturbing.”

 ?? Julian Smith/associated PRESS ?? A report by the Australian Broadcasti­ng Corp. detailed players being pressured to break up with their partners. Above, Hawthorn Hawks fans during the Australian Football League Grand Final in 2015.
Julian Smith/associated PRESS A report by the Australian Broadcasti­ng Corp. detailed players being pressured to break up with their partners. Above, Hawthorn Hawks fans during the Australian Football League Grand Final in 2015.

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