How the Hawthorn racism inquiry became an interminable mess where everyone loses | Craig Little
On 4 July 2018, Norm Smith medallist and three-time All-Australian Cyril Rioli announced his retirement from football, effective immediately.
Rioli was an adornment to the game. One of a few who possessed the skill and joie de vivre you would pay money to see. At the time, the reporting on the reason for his sudden retirement leant towards his difficult season the year prior, during which his father, Cyril Snr, died from a heart attack.
However, in April last year, Rioli and his wife, Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli, went public with allegations of racist behaviour at the Hawthorn Football Club.
It set in motion a process that would reveal allegations of racism involving high-profile AFL figures and lead to the current situation from which there will be no winners, least of all the First Nations families whose stories, so painfully shared, are now for the most part erased.
The grievances aired by the Riolis included Shannyn’s unhappiness with former Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett’s comments about her ripped jeans for which he offered loose change to fix them – comments Kennett claimed were a joke.
For the Riolis it was the final straw, and going public in 2022 about their experience was the impetus for the club to improve its cultural awareness practices.
Hawthorn soon engaged with former players as part of an external review into its history with First Nations footballers.
The commissioning of the review into how First Nations players were treated, and that it provided anonymity to participants, was hardly a secret. It was widely known of within AFL circles, and news of it was published in Australia’s biggest selling daily with a cross-platform readership of more than 4 million.
The scope of the review was to gather the experiences from Hawthorn’s First Nations players in the period from 2008 to 2016, it asked: “how safe did you feel?”
It was a question that required players and their families to relive things they had spent years trying to put behind them in order to get through the rest of their lives.
It was heartbreaking to read about some of those experiences in the ABC’s report last September. They were graphic in detail, with one player alleging “that a group of coaches including Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan, ushered him into an office, where he was urged to have the pregnancy terminated, ‘get rid’ of his partner and move into the home of an assistant coach”.
Clarkson and Fagan have strenuously denied the allegations through regular commentary and numerous public statements. While testimony from Clarkson and Fagan was outside the scope of the initial review conducted by Phil Egan, it is remarkable that their responses to the allegations were not sought by Hawthorn before the club signed off on the recommendations, which they deemed too complex for the club to enact, instead, handballing the review to the AFL.
Despite the AFL being given the Hawthorn review prior to the ABC’s reporting of the allegations, the league’s response appeared to follow the build-the-boat-while-sailing strategy that culminated in the creation of an independent inquiry – as much as an inquiry formed and funded by an organisation can be independent of it.
At the time of writing neither Clarkson, Fagan, nor more than half of the families involved are attending mediation. So, you have to ask, who is the inquiry for?
If the AFL’s independent investigation had been aboard the Titanic, there would have been no need for the iceberg.
It’s now increasingly likely that redress will ultimately be sought in other forums such as the courts. A high-level WorkSafe investigation is also not yet complete.
There is no denying this must be an extremely difficult time for Clarkson and Fagan, already employed in roles that would place an enormous strain on anyone. Earlier this week, it became too much for Clarkson, who, having been hailed a deity nine months ago, stood aside from North Melbourne indefinitely due to the overwhelming human conditions of exhaustion, stress and volatility.
It must be difficult for an industry that measures itself on wins to be presented with a situation where one doesn’t seem to exist.
Put simply, it is a purgatorial mess.
It is instructive that the overwhelming media and public narrative has for a long time now centred on the impact on Clarkson and Fagan with rarely a cursory concern for the other parties involved.
The stories of the Hawthorn families appear to have been erased.
Those close to the families involved say that the months after the response (or non-response) from Hawthorn and the AFL has had a greater toll on them than having to relive their experiences as part of the initial review.
While you cannot dismiss the mental and corporeal toll of the situation on Clarkson and Fagan, you also cannot deny how the hurt and isolation the First Nations’ families continue to feel is compounded by the AFL, the media and cultural machines-slash-industries that feed it.
It’s even harder to deny the role of race and power in all of this. If you’re still seeking an answer to why the families accepted Hawthorn’s offer of anonymity, this is it.
The racism that flows through Australian life may not run as deep as it once did, but it has never run dry.