Making the AFL a safer workplace for all

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My mother’s side of the family contains several generations of Collingwood supporters. These were old school Collingwood types — working class white folks that earnt a crust in the many factories which were dotted around the area and now mostly contain luxury apartments. Family tradition continues now — my mother and father have tried to ‘claim’ my nephews and niece for their team and Collingwood is winning out over Geelong, no matter how much my Arrernte father states that the ‘great Polly Farmer’ changed his life.

Heritier Lumumba talking to press (Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)

As for myself though, while I will always be ‘Collingwood’, it seems I will simply never again sit down and enjoy the skill of the (men’s) game without feeling deeply uncomfortable. My entire childhood was filled with stories on how Collingwood was the team of the underdog, the workers, the immigrants (think the Pannam dynasty). Collingwood supporters were people picked on because we were seen as uneducated and too poor to afford dental work. Yet while that image is very much still part of how Collingwood supporters proudly see themselves, the team dedicated to giving Australian society’s underdogs a go has not existed for a very long time.

The past couple of weeks have seen the racism former Collingwood great Heritier Lumumba endured while at the club hitting the headlines. This is not the first time Lumumba’s allegations have been in the news — they featured in the 2017 documentary film Fair Game and they also received some coverage at the time. It may be six years since Lumumba left the club, but on seeing Collingwood ‘taking a knee‘ in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at their game against Richmond, he saw an opportunity to broach an hypocrisy which had long gone unaddressed.

Speaking to SBS’ The Feed in response to this gesture by Collingwood, Lumumba said, ‘Let's talk about Black lives. And let's talk about how it was clear that my black life didn't matter to you at the time that I was at the club’. This interview followed a nine point statement Lumumba released via Twitter talking not only of individual racism he encountered at the club but also how he tried to address a series of systemic problems and was not only unsupported, but also at times shutdown and gaslit.

Many supporters may have been surprised by Lumumba’s comments, instead believing Collingwood’s gesture was compassionate and noble, reflecting care at a time when the world was reeling due to videoed the death of George Floyd whilst connecting the dots with Australia’s own problems with Aboriginal deaths in police custody. I tended to agree with Lumumba though: to me it looked like another symbolic gesture from a club which still needs to rectify its own problems with racism.

Indeed, Collingwood’s gesture sent me hurtling right back to the Adam Goodes booing saga and how an initial act of racism became a carnival of white men displaying hurt feelings each time they were called out. It reminded me how Lumumba’s stance in solidarity with Adam Goodes after Collingwood President Eddie McGuire made a racist joke on radio got him accused of throwing McGuire ‘under the bus’ by the head of Collingwood’s PR. It also reminded me that McGuire’s ‘joke’ was only uttered because a Collingwood fan called Goodes an ‘ape’ during Indigenous round and despite McGuire’s stage-managed concern at the time, he clearly didn’t grasp the impact of this incident and felt making light of it was appropriate.

 

'After all, the AFL is not just a game. It’s a workplace. And like in other workplaces, the workers deserve conditions which are supportive, inclusive and give them the opportunity to thrive. Clubs have a responsibility to provide this.'

 

Yet how could McGuire not know referring to black people as different primates was inappropriate? Lumumba himself addressed this issue (also detailed in Fair Game) when, after 10 years of having the nickname ‘chimp’ at Collingwood, he called it out himself at a players’ meeting. At this point, Lumumba was already known by many to be a man who would take a stand against injustices. I and many others proudly noticed him making headlines for calling out racist, sexist and homophobic behaviour he had witnessed and others had experienced in the club. An opportunity therefore existed for Collingwood to listen and make changes to ensure player safety. Instead, they seized on statements Lumumba later made that he was struggling mentally in this environment and treated club issues with structural oppression as mere personal demons Lumumba had to face.

It’s therefore infuriating that six years down the track Collingwood still cannot see what went wrong beyond a bad nickname that they still pretend they didn’t know about. They’re still treating racism as an individual issue Lumumba had with the club, which can be examined via an ‘internal review’, and not one which has much bigger structural implications. The same can be said for issues of homophobia Lumumba also tried to address while at Collingwood. In 2020, there are still no men comfortable enough to play as openly gay men yet the AFLW has not only had many openly queer players, but also proud lesbian team captains. Why this disparity, and what truly has changed?

After all, the AFL is not just a game. It’s a workplace. And like in other workplaces, the workers deserve conditions which are supportive, inclusive and give them the opportunity to thrive. Clubs have a responsibility to provide this. The AFL is additionally a very public workplace and it has the ability to have a much broader social impact for good than it’s currently having. Proof of this is when the AFL adopted anti-racism policies in the wake of Nicky Winmar’s stance against on-field racism (again at a Collingwood game) and due to this example, many other industries followed suit. It’s a shame such progression appears to have stopped there.

Lumumba has gravitas; he always has had. It can be witnessed in post-game interviews he did when he was still playing and it was part of the reason why Collingwood initially liked putting him in front of the cameras. It’s there throughout Fair Game where he articulates his time and experiences with great clarity. It was even evident in the conversation he was kind enough to grant me. Lumumba is an incredibly intelligent individual with a great amount of courage and conviction, who wants to make change for the better. For years, Collingwood had the opportunity to take this knowledge, to engage with it and to make change. They failed to do so and six years down the track we’re still just seeing symbolic gestures while we wait for the next racist wave to come crashing down.

To his credit, when speaking with me about the way forward, Lumumba stated ‘it’s not about me. It’s about the AFL as a workplace and making these workplaces healthier and safer environments so they can properly reflect and support the diversity of people who play the game’. As at least a fifth generation Collingwood supporter (however disengaged), I truly hope so too. Until then though, my guernsey is staying in the mothballs.

 

 

Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: Heritier Lumumba talking to press (Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Heritier Lumumba, Collingwood, AFL, AFLM, racism

 

 

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Existing comments

As always, Celeste, you build your arguments and articulate them very well. Always a pleasure to read your writing. I have to say though that I'm very disappointed to learn that you are a Magpie, however disengaged you might be. Keep smiling, and keep writing.
Richard Olive | 14 July 2020


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