‘No room for racism’ in AFL but it runs deeper than just verbal and online abuse

It has been another onerous few weeks on the “no room for racism” merry-go-round after Fremantle players Michael Walters and Michael Frederick were racially abused on social media following their club’s Naidoc Week win earlier this month. Predictably, there was another incident this weekend, with fresh allegations that a spectator racially abused Carlton defender Adam Saad on Saturday night.

The simplistic slogan partly reflects the widespread ignorance of what racism is, how it functions and the ways in which it appears. But, as a microcosm of Australian society, it is also reflective of the AFL and its clubs, who maintain an unflinching emphasis on growing the game at significant moral and ethical cost.

Racism has oxygenated the game and over the generations enabled it to grow. At this juncture, the only apparent evolution is that verbal and online abuse – the low-hanging fruit that is easily understood – is supposedly no longer tolerated.

Without a shred of self-awareness, the Dockers have stood in solidarity with Walters and Frederick under the backdrop of a long-standing partnership with Woodside, Australia’s largest independent dedicated oil and gas company.

Woodside’s proposed Burrup Hub LNG expansion is threatening Murujuga, a priceless cultural treasure on Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula which archives more than 50,000 years of human ingenuity. Living within the lands, seas and skies, Murujuga holds the Lore, Dreaming and Songlines that have connected and sustained the region’s First Nations people since the first sunrise.

If there really was “no room for racism”, then Fremantle would not be in partnership with Woodside.

Nor would the West Coast Eagles and AFLW be in partnership with BHP, another multinational that destroys ancient Aboriginal cultural heritage and has exercised gag clauses that render Traditional Owners unable to lodge objections or to prevent their sacred sites from being damaged.

Port Adelaide wouldn’t be in partnership with Santos, whose offshore Barossa Project – described by gas economist Bruce Robertson as a “carbon dioxide factory with an LNG by-product” and by Richie Merzian of the Australia Institute as “one of the dirtiest gas fields in Australia” – is the subject of legal action by Traditional Owners from the Tiwi Islands who are seeking to stop the development.

Not even the homelands that have birthed the Rioli football dynasty of Maurice, Cyril, Daniel, Dean, Willie and Maurice Jr, who as a collective have brought more joy to the game than any other family, is off limits.

If there was “no room for racism”, then the league would not be so closely connected to Telstra, considering the telecommunications company was recently ordered to pay $50m in penalties after admitting it took advantage of vulnerable Indigenous customers by signing them up to mobile phone contracts they did not understand or could afford.

The AFL would not be in partnership with Coles, which has energetically promoted its Liquorland stores in the Northern Territory against the wishes of many Indigenous organisations, which represent communities with the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the country.

Because fairness, justice and proportionality is defined and measured by those who don’t bear the brunt of racism, bigotry at an individual and institutional level is often met with a slap on the wrist and red-carpet ride into another prominent role within the industry. Like clockwork, the “no room for racism” crowd chants “stop living in the past, everyone makes mistakes, it’s time to move on”, just in time for the merry-go-round to complete another lap, only to then be propelled forward by more of the same stuff.

The “no room for racism” crowd, many of whom have paternalistically positioned themselves as the knowers and tellers, also refuse to acknowledge the structural role that wealth, whiteness and the private school system plays for prospective draftees – who year after year, continue to dominate the draft.

Just over a quarter – 25.6% – of players drafted to AFL clubs in 2017 came from the 11 schools who make up the Associated Public Schools of Victoria, which also supplied four of the first five picked. These 11 schools – Melbourne Grammar, Scotch College, Geelong Grammar, Xavier College, Wesley College, St Kevin’s College, Haileybury College, Caulfield Grammar, Brighton Grammar, Geelong College and Carey Grammar – are seen as “cradles of the country’s owners and decision-makers”.

Despite the outsized contributions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players make to the game, there is a silence surrounding the fact that Indigenous coaches make up 1.5% of AFL coaches, with Barry Cable and Polly Farmer the only two Indigenous head coaches in VFL/AFL history.

As the old saying goes, a problem well stated is a problem half solved. For the AFL and its clubs, there are two prongs to the problem. The first is an ignorance of power brokers whose ascension and tenure depend on maintaining the status quo; and the second is a surrender to capitalist imperatives that define anything other than growth as a loss.

Of course, the problem isn’t intractable. But standing behind the “no room for racism” banner whilst profiting from it certainly isn’t the cure.