‘Harrowing’ claims of racism, bullying rock Australian football club
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 had 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 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 experience. Chief executive Justin Reeves said in a news conference the findings were a surprise and the allegations were “extremely disturbing.”
Michael E. Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.