At Hawthorn it was a combination of players and enlightened football department officials that started a process that, while not perfect, is way ahead of where the club was in 1999, the year after Eddie McGuire became Collingwood president.
In 1999 the Hawks drafted an Indigenous player, Chance Bateman. It was a move out of step with the club’s history. Until that point Cyril Collard (1957-58) and Percy Cummings (1964-65) had been the only two Indigenous players to play with the Hawks.
Willie Rioli Senior had arrived at Hawthorn in 1990, played 20 reserves games in one season, then left for Western Australia to continue his football career. Over a 34-year stretch he was the only Indigenous player at the club until new recruiting manager John Turnbull recruited Bateman.
Bateman’s arrival ended what the Hawks Reconciliation Action Plan admits was “the club’s resistance to recruiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players” throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Even with that knowledge Turnbull was shocked when a senior club official made the now infamous comment to him, “just remember, don’t draft anyone with skin darker than mine”.
The recruiting manager used that provocation as motivation to right a wrong, as did Bateman after Turnbull shared the shocking story when the recruit innocently enquired as to why there had been so few Aboriginal players at Hawthorn before him.
For a long time people would think we were lightly framed and can be a bit flighty and not real tough over the footy. And that when things go wrong they can go missing, which really rubbed me up the wrong way.”
“Once he told me that, it was one of my goals to change all the misconceptions or preconceived ideas, those stereotypes people had about Indigenous people,” Bateman said.
“It wasn’t just what they thought about them as people but it mattered what the footy club or people thought about them as players.
“A lot of people think we get to play AFL football because we are extremely talented and we get by on that alone. For a long time people would think we were lightly framed and can be a bit flighty and not real tough over the footy. And that when things go wrong they can go missing, which really rubbed me up the wrong way.”
By 2012 Bateman had fulfilled his ambition, retiring as one of Hawthorn’s most influential figures after 177 games, a premiership player and leader that helped lay a path at the club for some of the best players of their era, Cyril Rioli, Lance Franklin and Shaun Burgoyne, who are all Indigenous.
Bateman didn’t do it alone, with Mark Williams – a teammate of Bateman’s in the 2008 flag – drafted in 2000.
His presence was critical.
Importantly, Bateman also knew he had the backing of key people within the football department.
Turnbull and coaches Peter Schwab then Alastair Clarkson all listened to what was important to Indigenous players before becoming passionate about the issues themselves, says Bateman.
“The senior coach in a footy club has more clout than anyone, so once ‘Clarko’ was speaking just as passionately and pushing the same course as we were, as Aboriginal players inside the organisation, it was always going to make a difference and create an environment that was culturally safe for Aboriginal players to come into,” he says.
Hawthorn have not been perfect, their board slow to concede that racism was driving the booing by their supporters of Goodes when the issue came to the fore after Hawthorn played the Swans in 2015.
Even in 2019, many Hawks supporters reacted poorly to news their team would wear Goodes’ No.37 in the pre-game warm-up as a gesture of support to the Swans champion. The Hawks’ Jarman Impey had to tell fans to “take a breath”.
But Bateman says the club has progressed since 1999 when he arrived.
“When you have got Shaun Burgoyne inside your footy club you know that the environment for young Aboriginal boys in particular is going to be a good one to come into,” Bateman said.
Despite that progress Bateman has a word of caution for the industry overall as eight of the 18 clubs are now without a designated Indigenous Liaison Officer, as COVID tightened purse strings, arguing that such essential positions should sit outside the soft cap.
“To not have a full-time employee that is purely there for those Aboriginal players seems crazy for me,” Bateman said.
Bateman knows the challenges and what football clubs must get right. Listening he says is a good place to start but also provides a reminder that the AFL and their clubs more often than not reflect society.
“That systemic racism doesn’t just exist at footy clubs, we’re still trying our hardest to wipe it out of society as well,” Bateman said.
WHAT OTHER CLUBS ARE DOING
Saints CEO Matt Finnis knows after last year’s ABC story on the club’s treatment of former player Robbie Muir that every club has work to do with Indigenous people and their communities, even one the iconic Winmar represented in 230 games.
The Saints apologised to Muir and acknowledged grave errors in the past. They enter 2021 listening and learning with four Indigenous players, Brad Hill, Patrick Ryder, Jade Gresham and Ben Long on their list and Nathan Lovett-Murray working as an Indigenous liaison officer/development coach.
“It’s a journey of opening ourselves up and challenging ourselves to understand, to listen and to learn,” Finnis said.
“The power of the players as role models and as story tellers to cut through the prejudice but also to open up our eyes and draw our attention to issues is essential.”
Tigers CEO Steve Wright received government funding in 2008 that led to the Korin Gamadji Institute (KGI) opening in 2011. This year it will celebrate its 10th anniversary having had close to 10,000 community members through the programs in an organisation managed by Indigenous people.
The Tigers say community consultation was key so that Richmond walked shoulder to shoulder with players and staff when the doors opened in 2011.
The defending premiers have an Indigenous assistant coach, Xavier Clarke and six Indigenous players on their list, with the KGI woven into the club, helping the Tigers understand who they are and what they stand for and providing a safe environment for their players.
1993 Winmar lifts his jumper to expose his stomach saying he is black and proud of it after beng racially abused at Victoria Park.
1995 Essendon’s Michael Long refuses to cop racist abuse from Collingwood’s Damian Monkhorst and his actions lead to the AFL introducing a rule banning racial and religious vilification.
2019 The AFL finally apologises unreservedly for failing to stand up for Sydney champion Goodes and admits the booing of him in 2015 was racially motivated.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.