Explosive allegations of racism raised by an external review into the Hawthorn Hawks have again put the AFL and its relations with Indigenous players in the spotlight. Eddie Betts and several others have responded that the allegations make them sad but not surprised.
Despite their prominence in Australian Rules Football, Aboriginal players continue to cop racial abuse in the sport, as described by Eddie Betts in his recent autobiography.
Of course, racism in Australian sport, AFL included, is hardly new. The late Sir Douglas Nicholls, to whose memory a round of the AFL season is dedicated each year, was initially turned down by Carlton, who claimed that he smelt. (He subsequently went on to play for Fitzroy.)
Nicholls’s rejection by Carlton happened in 1927. Today, Aboriginal representation in the AFL is far higher than their percentage of the population (10 per cent of AFL players vs some 3 per cent of the Australian population). Yet Indigenous players regularly cop soul-destroying racial abuse and vilification.
When Kysiaih Pickett kicked the winning goal in the last 11 seconds of a Melbourne Demons-Carlton Blues match in August, there was jubilation among Melbourne fans and tears for Carlton. Within hours, though, the Demons revealed that Pickett has been subjected to racial abuse on social media within minutes of the final siren.
The Demons immediately spoke out in support of their player, releasing a statement: “Last night a Melbourne player was again subjected to racism on social media. This sort of behaviour is abhorrent and needs to stop.
“It is saddening, angering and unacceptable that this behaviour continues to occur.”
And yet it does occur, time and again.
The previous week, the Lions’ Cam Ah Chee was vilified (again on social media) after Collingwood’s Patrick Cripps avoided a two-game sanction for a bump that left Ah Chee concussed. Yes, the player who caused the injury got off without sanction, while the one with the head injury copped the abuse.
In August, Eddie Betts released his autobiography, The Boy from Boomerang Crescent. Much of the book’s publicity has focused on the disastrous and controversial 2018 camp run by the Adelaide Crows; Betts’ revelations about the camp have drawn apologies from Crows management and threats of class action.
Yet relatively little of the publicity surrounding the book has dwelt on the racial abuse copped by Betts, of which he describes several incidents. These included a spectator throwing a banana at him and the receipt of an anonymous letter calling him an “Abo faggot”. Betts says his social media accounts continue to attract abuse – including the loaded use of monkey emojis – and sometimes they emanate from social media accounts registered to children. Yes, children who think it’s okay to, essentially, call an Aboriginal player an ape.
And while the bulk of the abuse is directed at Indigenous players, African and Middle Eastern players also cop plenty of it.
The AFL was the first football code to outlaw on-field racial sledging, back in 1995, when it introduced Rule 35: Discrimination and Racial and Religious Vilification. Spectator abuse, and the often anonymous social media vilification continues. For Aboriginal AFL, there is no safety in numbers.