AFL Indigenous roads pockmarked by racism

·4-min read

Australia's indigenous game hasn't always been a welcoming game for Indigenous Australians.

This AFL season, there were 81 Indigenous players on club lists.

And they're treading a path pockmarked by racism, with Hawthorn the latest club reeling.

The VFL/AFL's first Indigenous player was Joe Johnson, a dual premiership player for Fitzroy in 1904-05.

But until his son Percy played for North Melbourne in 1951, Indigenous Australians were largely ignored in the then VFL - only roughly half a dozen featured in the interim years.

Others would later follow, most notably West Australian Polly Farmer at Geelong in the 1960s, before a batch of Indigenous talent made their collective mark in the 1970s and 1980s.

They did so amid an underbelly of racism which wasn't fully exposed until St Kilda great Nicky Winmar drew attention to it in 1993.

Winmar, sickened by taunts from Collingwood's Victoria Park crowd, famously lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin.

"People forget that words have a big impact. They can lift a person or destroy a person," Winmar would say.

"So that day I responded by saying to those people, and I still say it today: 'I'm black and I'm proud'."

A week after Winmar's act of pride, Collingwood's then president Allan McAllister said he had no issue with Indigenous folk - with an offensive caveat.

"As long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect ... as long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be alright," McAllister said.

Two years later, the AFL staged its first Anzac day game between Essendon and Collingwood.

The fixture was tarnished by Collingwood ruckman Damian Monkhorst racially vilifying Essendon's Michael Long.

Long complained, torching the old adage of what is said on the field, stays on the field.

After a fortnight of controversy, Monkhorst issued an uneasy apology. Later, he genuinely acknowledged his wrongdoing.

"I was young, I didn't really understand," Monkhorst said.

"But I'm really proud of Longy and the way he stood up for the cause."

The Long-Monkhorst incident was considered a watershed moment but tears would follow.

In 1999, St Kilda's Peter Everitt was suspended for four games for racially abusing Melbourne's Scott Chisholm during a game.

The proverbial penny seemed to have dropped on the AFL playing cohort.

But a dozen years later in 2011, Western Bulldogs player Justin Sherman was banned for four games for racially vilifying an un-named Gold Coast opponent.

The next year, the AFL's national community engagement manager Jason Mifsud claimed Adelaide's recruiting manager Matthew Rendell suggested clubs could adopt a policy of only recruiting Aboriginal players with at least one white parent.

Rendell apologised, saying his comments were taken out of context, but resigned.

While on-field racism between players mercifully dwindled, spectators were soon caught offending footballers.

In 2013, Sydney's dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes was, during a game, called an ape by a 13-year-old Collingwood supporter.

A distressed Goodes pointed the girl out to security but urged greater education.

"To hear a 13-year-old girl call me an ape ... it was shattering," Goodes said at the time.

"Racism has a face. It's a 13-year-old girl.

"People need to get around her. She's 13, she's uneducated."

Goodes believed the incident started a chain of events that ultimately led to him stepping down from playing, then returning, then retiring at the end of the 2015 season when sick and tired of being jeered by other spectators.

Goodes' Indigenous fraternity continued to cop vile sledges.

In 2014, a 70-year-old spectator was reported to police for making racist comments to Goodes and his Sydney teammate Lance Franklin during a match against Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium.

In 2016, a banana was thrown at Adelaide's Eddie Betts by a female Port Adelaide supporter during a game.

"A banana being thrown at an Indigenous man is unambiguously racist," AFL chief Gillon McLachlan said at the time as Port suspended the woman's club membership.

Like Goodes before him, Betts appealed for more education.

"It's never too late to learn,'' Betts said.

"No one is born racist ... it's ingrained in them somewhere down the track.

"It all comes down to that, to be educated."

But racist abuse kept coming, chiefly on social media, where esteemed players including Paddy Ryder, Nic Naitanui, Liam Ryan and Chad Wingard have been targets.

And last year Collingwood released a report into claims of historical racism at the club.

Three former Magpie players - Heritier Lumumba, Leon Davis and Andrew Krakouer - detailed their own experiences of racism at Collingwood.

The Collingwood report, titled Do Better, found the club had failed to address systemic racism.

"Too often the reaction was defensive rather than proactive and this aggravated, rather than mitigated, the impact of that racism on the people who experienced it," the report said.