In line with divided opinion amongst Collingwood fans, I am not impressed by the recent Do Better — Independent review into Collingwood Football Club’s responses to Incidents of Racism and Cultural Safety in the Workplace,
With the report making 18 recommendations to address racism “in a meaningful way” at every level of the club from values to accountability and transparency, it includes statements “that there is something distinct and egregious about Collingwood’s history”; the evidence is “compelling and speaks to systemic racism of the kind that means the concerted efforts of individuals do not translate into change”; and “racism appears to be a part of Collingwood Football Club’s DNA”.
However, an objective report (conducted by academics) should not merely structure the evidence of the past in a negative light to make its recommendations given the Club’s recent and considerable efforts to address racism more effectively.
Rather, a balanced report should recognise the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of the Club’s recent response to racism.
After all, the assertion that little has changed at Collingwood under McGuire with regard to racism is a travesty given the 1993 comment by the then President (Allan McAllister) of indigenous players, “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 all right. That's the key”.
I argue this despite President McGuire’s admitted gaffe in 2013 when he apologised to Adam Goodes after the latter was called an ‘ape’ by a young Collingwood supporter during an AFL match, only for McGuire to go on radio and suggest Goodes be used to promote a King Kong Musical.
Under McGuire, the Club’s efforts to address racism have been significant and now includes:
- a Bullying Policy and a Social Media and Networking Policy, which from 2020 policy also highlights both direct (interpersonal) and indirect (structural) racism;
- the Barrawarn Program which includes cultural awareness training for staff to provide information and a deeper understanding of different cultures and their experiences;
- a First Nations board member;
- an Indigenous position on staff (the Manager for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs) to focus on education programs and cultural activities throughout the Club;
- a Reconciliation Action Plan, across its football and netball teams, to oversee progress to include senior leadership of the Club and highly respected members of the Indigenous community;
- the Club’s Cheer Squad being given training and a revised Code of Conduct which resulted in the suspension of two members of the Cheer Squad following a breach of the Code of Conduct in 2019;
- the Club pursuing a person who vilified Travis Varcoe via social media during 2020 by lodging a formal complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission;
- Collingwood players kneeling in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as was the case by sporting teams around the world;
- and the Club issuing a formal apology on 24 August 2020 for its part in racially abusing Robert Muir during his career with St Kilda.
The report’s call for a more proactive Club response to racism mirrors a view that sport must take the lead, perhaps in line with the famous National Basketball Association (NBA) player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 2018 summary that
...professional sports has always been a mirror of America’s attitude toward race: as long as black players were restricted from taking the field, then the rest of black Americans would never truly be considered equal, meaning they would not be given equal educational or employment opportunities … Right now, sports may be the best hope for change regarding racial disparity because it has the best chance of informing white Americans of that disparity and motivating them to act.
But there is another story that counters the report’s recommendations which requires further discussion.
For instance, the report’s recommendation that the Club should recruit more players and staff of indigenous and other cultural backgrounds downplays the existing reality that sporting clubs are indeed pursuing talent to fill their player rosters at a time when institutional racism has been totally discredited by government policies and majority public opinion, both here and abroad.
With a 2016 article noting that Indigenous representation on Australian Football League playing lists was around 9% (3% for administrative ranks), compared to 12% for the National Rugby league (4% administrative roles) at a time when the Indigenous people comprised 2.7% of Australia’s population, a 2018 source indicates that coloured players comprise 42.5% of Major League Baseball (albeit that African-American players had declined from 13% in 2000 to 7.7%), 80.7% of NBA players, and over 70% in the National Football League (NFL).
Would the authors of the Do Better report recommend that US teams adopt more white players given that NFL and NBA teams are now dominated by Americans with African heritage?
There are also problems with the report’s suggestion that the Club can better deal with racism incidents more effectively internally through “clear and trusted avenues through which complaints could be made” with protection for whistle-blowers, which would help avoid outside legal processes and negative media publicity.
While the report is correct to note that racist incidents should be subject to penalties in the same way as other poor behaviour is (sexual misconduct, drug taking and public violence), I doubt whether a more thorough internal review of racism incidents can always avoid media attention or legal action.
Given that many incidents at a football club involve many players, as evident by the example of name-calling, it is virtually impossible for a club to take action against many players for so-called racist incidents after a period of time, beyond the club now discouraging potentially racist nicknames in line with greater awareness about racial sensitivities in recent years.
For example, while Heritier Lumumba refused to tolerate his nickname of ‘chimp’ from 2012, after enduring it from 2005, it would be ludicrous to punish players for such name-calling on the basis it is now deemed racist.
As one 2011 academic piece points out, many studies examining the use of nicknames tend to focus on their negative connotations, often in association with bullying and name-calling behaviour” yet “some studies do attend to the total repertoire of use while a restricted few focus only on the positive nicknaming practices which help express warmth, affection, or build solidarity”.
Just recently, the former Collingwood (indigenous) player Simon Buckley responded to the report on Facebook (since deleted) by stating Lumumba “would refer to himself as chimp”, “never complained when he was winning flags”, and should have “called it out at the time” rather than now run with it in the media.
At other times, a club may be limited about what it can do with regard to incidents of racism. For instance, when Adam Goodes pointed to a 13 year old girl in the crowd after she called him an “ape” during a 2013 AFL match, which led to the girl apologising to Goodes after a police interview without her parents present, all the Club could do was apologise.
The Club, like other AFL clubs, could also do little with regard to the booing of Goodes which persisted for several seasons within a feeling that Goodes’s reaction was over the top.
To conclude, I agree with the former Collingwood player Dwayne Beams who expressed the view that McGuire was forced to resign through “negativity” and a “witch hunt” in line with his wider view that he personally never felt he “was involved in a racist club”.
While McGuire resigned as president on 9 February 2021 because of his immediate response to the report where he declared it was a “proud and historic day”, a tearful McGuire also noted “I remind people that our recent review, inspired by Black Lives Matter, that part of a six-year journey of our reconciliation action plan was to look to what we need to do in the next 10 years, not the last”.
In my opinion, the Do Better report, while making useful recommendations, also serves to divide people through its failure to provide a more balanced report capable of addressing racism in sport in line with recent societal developments and expectations, although there is always the need to do much more, as acknowledged by McGuire.