The mere fact that “should Eddie go now?” is a genuine question for Collingwood – one posed to McGuire’s friend, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, who said he should stay for his allotted time – is a measure of McGuire’s dented position within the club and arguably the AFL and media landscapes in which he has been so ubiquitous, successful and influential.
The latest bout of Eddie trouble came on Monday when the club held an astonishing media conference, at which McGuire began by heralding a “historic and proud day” for the Magpies with the release of the “Do Better” report on racism – words that jarred with the damning contents of a leaked report that outlined “systemic racism” in the past at Collingwood.
It was evident from the first minutes that there was blood – Eddie’s – in the water at the media conference, in which the content of the report – a sincere attempt to grapple with and repair Collingwood’s unflattering racial resume – were utterly overshadowed by McGuire’s “historic and proud” blunder, another instance of him – as a media performer with untold flying hours before microphones – making comments that were not scripted by the club or agreed upon in advance.
It was noteworthy that the media pack were emboldened in their questioning of McGuire (this reporter was there), grilling him on the report and his history; there was a sense that he no longer held an intimidatory aura and that his vulnerability – and hurt – was palpable.
On Thursday, Collingwood’s players – men, women’s AFL and netballers – released an apology to those who had suffered from discrimination and racism at Collingwood, a pointed intervention following the botched media conference (for which McGuire apologised the next night at the club’s annual general meeting).
This followed a lengthy meeting between the players of all Collingwood’s teams, chief executive Mark Anderson and Sizer, when leading AFL players voiced what was described to me as “passive-aggressive” questions about the report, which some players felt they had been unable to contribute to yet were being asked to comment upon.
The players’ apology only added to the sense that the club’s people were unhappy with McGuire’s handling of the racial report, the contents of which – as star player Darcy Moore noted – was what really mattered.
The AFL’s view, too, was that the media conference had distracted from the important message of the report. “We’ve lost sight of what’s important,” said a senior AFL figure.
But in truth, McGuire’s troubles were not simply about Monday’s misplaced words, they were due to an accumulation of controversies – none more damaging to him and Collingwood than the 2013 “King Kong” comment on champion Adam Goodes (which, ironically, followed McGuire’s attempt to comfort Goodes after a young female fan called Goodes an ape); this in turn, led to Heritier Lumumba (then Harry O’Brien) confronting McGuire, and was perhaps the beginning of Lumumba’s fraught and now hostile relationship with Collingwood, which triggered both the Do Better report and a Supreme Court writ from the premiership ex-player.
The simple question – should McGuire go soon? – was posed to a variety of people, Collingwood-connected and within AFL circles by The Age. The former top public servant of the Victorian government under Jeff Kennett, Lendlease director and Collingwood fan Elizabeth Proust, was firmly in the camp that McGuire should leave as soon as possible.
Proust, who has been sounded out about a board position at Collingwood in the past, believes the Magpies cannot achieve the cultural change they need while McGuire remains at the helm. “The culture can’t be fixed while Eddie’s still there,” says Proust, who has just moved to Sydney and is not interested in standing for the board.
Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett said McGuire would be a significant loss to the AFL, but that decision was one for McGuire and his board. “The loss of his knowledge would be a very sad thing. He’s the most experienced and knowledgeable of any of the presidents,” said the former premier, who called McGuire “a lightning rod” like himself.
Leading television journalist and Collingwood fanatic Barrie Cassidy took the view that even if McGuire remains president for the rest of 2021, he should not be involved in Collingwood’s attempts to repair their issues with race and that it was debatable whether, as outgoing president, he should be driving calls on the coaching position (Nathan Buckley is coming out of contract in his 10th season) and football.
“If Eddie is to stay on until the end of the year, then the resolution to the racism issue and by extension the rebuild of the club’s culture must be done at arm’s length to him,” Cassidy says.
“Somebody from outside the club with expertise in the field has to be brought in to manage the implementation of the recovery program as outlined in the review. The process has to have absolute credibility.”
Cassidy said he was concerned that, upon announcing his exit, McGuire said he would use the time left as president setting up a new era. “Wrong attitude,” he says. “As the outgoing president he is responsible for 2021. The new administration should take it from there.”
Lawyer David Galbally, an ex-board member at Collingwood, praised the president’s “phenomenal” work for Collingwood, yet also felt it was preferable if McGuire went earlier: “All it is about is the future of the club.”
McGuire also has supporters and those who believe, given that he’s going anyway, he should be given the opportunity to step away as planned to avoid disruption.
Two enormous ironies colour his presidency: The first is that he arrived at Collingwood determined to rid the club of the racism taints from the Nicky Winmar, Michael Long and Allan McAlister incidents of the ’90s. The second is that his problems were often the product of intemperate comments on air from a consummate media performer.
Whether it is in the coming days, or weeks, Eddie McGuire’s Collingwood future is largely out of his hands. A six-member jury of his peers will shape the nature and timing of his exit.
“It being Collingwood, it being Melbourne and football, it won’t be straightforward,” says Proust, who – like the author of that name – has a remembrance of (Collingwood) things past.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.