The Collingwood Football Club is guilty of systemic racism, according to an independent review commissioned by the club and which was leaked on Monday.
While reference was made to claims of racism across the AFL more generally, Collingwood’s history with racism was described as “distinct and egregious”, with the club’s leadership, “particularly its board”, needing to drive structural change.
It described a culture of “individuals, if not quite being bigger than the Club, then at least having an unhealthy degree of influence over Club culture”.
The ABC has obtained a copy of the report, which the Collingwood board received more than a month ago.
Only days later, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire announced he would be stepping down from the role at the end of 2021 and said he would “spend the rest of [his] time as president setting up a new era of Collingwood”.
“I have much to do before I hand on the baton, together with my board and executive we are set to announce significant landmark initiatives in the area of equality, the fight against racism to ensure Collingwood is a safe and welcoming environment for all people, and more on that in due course,” McGuire said at the time.
The “Do Better” review was conducted by Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, a director of the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at UTS and colleague Professor Lindon Coombes.
Citing widespread evidence on the public record, and conversations with staff, players, ex-players and supporters, the review found Collingwood’s response to racist incidents was “at best ineffective, or at worst exacerbated the impact of the racist incidents”.
From those interviewed for the review, there emerged a sense that “dealing with racism was something that could be done when other things had been taken care of”.
The review recommended an audit of the Board to ensure the “personal views” of its members were “consistent with the values of the Club”.
- There is a gap between what Collingwood Football Club says it stands for and what it does
- The club is more likely to react to media coverage about a racist incident than complaints made within the club
- Collingwood’s response has often been perceived as one where claims of racism are dealt with in terms of damage control and protecting the brand
- Those who have raised issues felt they paid a high price for speaking out
- It diminishes the ability of the Club to resolve the dispute internally, and
- It heightens the risk of public grievance and negative publicity that impacts the Club, its staff, its players and its supporters.
The impetus for Collingwood’s independent review was the well-documented story of former club player Heritier Lumumba but it was not an investigation into his, or others’, allegations.
The review’s authors stress at the outset, ”nothing in this review can be taken as exonerating the club from any alleged wrongdoing” in the Lumumba case.
The review holds the “clear position” that a “serious investigation” into his claims is deserved, and one in which he needs to take part.
Lacking clear and distinct policies addressing racism meant the club was not able to deal with allegations in the same way it would deal with other issues.
Sexual misconduct, drug-taking or poor behaviour in public are all penalised by the club but racism is not held to the same standards.
A process of “truth-telling” is recommended involving First Nations people, Africans and other people of colour, with consideration given to a justice model that could include reparations, compensation and a public apology.
There was a “genuine acknowledgment of past failures and a strong desire to do better” with some positive steps already taken including:
- The appointment of a First Nations person to the board
- The appointment of a new CEO committed to making change
- The introduction of new policies that more directly target racism.
However, the review warns bringing about a cultural shift is a challenge that must be accepted club-wide rather than falling on the shoulders of a small number of staff or Indigenous and diversity committees.
When the Collingwood players took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the resumption of the AFL competition following a COVID-19 break in June 2020, it was a “simple, significant and sincere gesture”.
However, according to the review, for “many in the community, including former players and fans, it was perceived as a hypocritical move when seen in the context of a history of racist incidents involving the Collingwood Football Club”.
Without confronting its history in a genuine attempt to understand and make amends, the report says, such gestures remain only symbolic.
Some of the 18 recommendations are that the Collingwood Football Club:
- Undertake a board audit to ensure its membership, through behaviour and beliefs, reflects its goals of diversity and individually embrace the values of the club, including the principles of anti-racism and inclusion
- Implement a framework to ensure that there is accountability and consequences for acts of racism committed by members of the club community
- Ensure the development and implementation of an employment strategy that values diversity and reports against KPIs. This includes the player group and the coaching staff
- Develop a clear pipeline for the development of talent from diverse communities into the club, and which proactively supports First Nations and people of colour into post-playing positions – particularly coaching – within the club and the AFL
- Develop a process of “truth-telling” as a constructive step to more deeply understand the experiences of First Nations people and people of colour, their history and culture and the impacts of racism
- Develop a strategy to address and reconcile past acts of racism in a way that is proactive and seeks to reward, not punish, people who speak out against racism.
Many of the points made will resonate beyond the Collingwood Football Club.
They are pertinent to challenges faced in sport and the community more generally but point to the role sport can play in setting standards and changing perceptions.