I must confess that, like many, I read the headlines generated by Heritier Lumumba’s latest controversial comments with scepticism.
Full disclosure: As a Collingwood supporter I always feared he was a bit of an attention seeker. Aside from his flashes of brilliance off half-back, it’s hard to forget Lumumba’s bizarre speech at the 2014 Collingwood best and fairest in which he described himself as a “prince” who would have “the last laugh”.
Lumumba recently accused the Magpies in a new documentary Fair Game of fostering a culture of racism. He describes it as a boys’ club for racist and sexist jokes, says he was called “chimp” by his teammates and that he was accused of throwing Eddie McGuire under a bus over the Adam Goodes ‘King Kong’ controversy.
After what he believed was a lacklustre response to his claims, Lumumba followed up with an opinion piece on Monday titled: “If the AFL is a ‘leading’ anti-racist organisation, why won’t it address the racism I faced?”
Previously, I’d been sceptical of Lumumba’s claims. But in his Monday article, a paragraph caused me to think again.
“In the past few weeks, I have re-lived the events that marked my final years of football,” Lumumba wrote in The Guardian. “I have been repeatedly questioned about my experience – nine years of working in a culture where I was called ‘black c—‘, a ‘ni–er’, and a ‘slave’ – all in the name of ‘fun’.”
“All in the name of ‘fun’.”
I have no special insight into the culture of any AFL club, nor can I vouch for the legitimacy of Lumumba’s specific claims.
What I do know is that racial jibes are thrown around among boys and blokes with a casual ease that would be shocking to some. I knew it playing junior football and I knew it mucking about at recess at an all-boys’ Catholic high school in Melbourne’s inner-east.
The problem with these jibes – delivered in the name of “fun” – is that while they read like racial abuse on a page, their intent is not quite so clear-cut in person.
They can be delivered with a slap on the back and a laugh from people that you like and who are otherwise nice to you. People who are your friends. Your teammates.
I was called a “black bitch” by an opponent on the footy field at the age of 12. I knew from the tone that that wasn’t in ‘good fun’. I later learned ‘good fun’ was when I was called “porch monkey”, among other names, by high school friends during lunchtime cricket or when I became “blacky” to a few football teammates in my teens. A friend from another sport would call me his ‘ni–er’ as we walked to Maccas after training.
It’s times like these that you’re faced with two options: Call it out and be told you can’t take a joke – or worse still, face the wrath of someone who feels they’ve inexplicably been called racist.
The other option is to say nothing, laugh along at your own expense, and quietly wonder why your friends derive such pleasure from making you feel small.
Like Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who first refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner to protest the shooting of unarmed black Americans, Lumumba is not a model spokesman for an issue that already causes many Australians to roll their eyes.
Some will find it easy – convenient even – to dismiss him; a flashy but inconsistent footballer, an eccentric figure off the field. But consider that indigenous player Leon Davis, a softly-spoken former Collingwood star, backed his claims last week.
Consider also what Lumumba is really saying: that he was regularly called “chimp” in the “name of good fun” by his teammates.
Within a culture that could see McGuire compare Goodes to an ape in the midst of a racism firestorm, Lumumba’s claims don’t sound to me like attention-seeking.
They read like someone who was sick of quietly wondering why his own teammates had been so intent on making him – one of their own –feel small.
And if the AFL is a “leader in the country” on racism, as its boss Gillon McLachlan claims, that is something it will face head on.