Has the culture of AFL changed at all?

Late last century, a young, fast-rising Australian cricketer was urged by some in the game’s innermost circle to dump his then girlfriend. She would hold him back, it was said. He could do better.

Last century makes it seem like a long time ago. In contemplations of sport now, you’re likely to hear expressions such as “player welfare,” “the whole man,” “duty of care,” “inclusion,” “respect for all,” etc. It is language meant to convince us of an evolved and empathetic culture. It comes with symbols, too: brilliantly coloured Indigenous guernseys, for instance.

Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan at Hawthorn in 2016.Credit:Getty Images.

The zenith of this thinking was Richmond’s embrace of openness and vulnerability. The way the Tigers tell it, it became an animating force behind their trio of latter-day premierships. Other AFL clubs quickly adopted versions of it.

This is not to doubt that Richmond were genuine in their holistic approach. But it is history written by the winners.

You rarely hear about the losers. You rarely hear about those who fall by the wayside and their experiences. That is, most. The average AFL career is around 30 games.

This is the season when they disappear off lists and from sight, dozens at a time, never to be considered again.

Everyone remembers that Adelaide superstar Taylor Walker racially vilified an Indigenous footballer at a SANFL game last year.

But who without googling remembers his name? Hint: he played three games for St Kilda.

Earlier this year, Hawthorn commissioned a report a review into how First Nations players were treated by the club. Senior officials were not interviewed for it.

On Wednesday, the ABC’s Russell Jackson published a harrowing story about three players who were. In it, you can see and hear the lengths to which one club went to condition talented young Indigenous footballers so that they might become winners. Effectively, they were stolen from their partners and families for their supposed betterment. Ring a bell?

They were being held back; they could do better. But that better was really the club’s better. Evidently, one of the players came with complications in his personal life. Hawthorn would have known this. They would have taken him firstly for the gain he could make for them and only then the good they might do for him. Please, let’s not hear that they had only the best of intentions.

At the release of the Do Better report on Collingwood early last year, there was conspicuous silence from other clubs. Again now, if they don’t already know what’s in their cupboards, they’ll wonder.

Chris Fagan last week.Credit:Getty Images.

And all for what? Games. Games that engage us, divert us, thrill us, even fulfil us, but games of football nonetheless. Games that … entail human sacrifice? What on earth are we doing?

But they’re not games, of course. They’re an industry. Footy cheerfully calls itself one. The industrialisation of sport has been going on for a long time now. Livelihoods depend on it, killings are made from it.

Did you see the TV rights deal announcement earlier this month, with all those zeroes after it, like so many spinning eyes?

In this vast industry, nothing can be left to anything as capricious as human nature. Hence Dr Larry Nassar. Hence, the notorious Adelaide Crows camp. Hence, the gruesome findings of recent human rights commission reports in this country into gymnastics, swimming and women’s soccer.

Hence, a still problematic double standard in footy’s approach to concussion.

Hence, “whatever it takes”.

Hence, of all clubs, Hawthorn, with all those premierships. Hawthorn had the key. If the allegations are true, turns out they also had a dungeon.

Sydney Swans fans supporting Adam Goodes after he was targeted in 2015.Credit:James Brickwood

It was easy for those in the sporting milieu – including media – to think that recent progress has been made. Mental health was moved to the top of the agenda. Compassion became something of a byword. Family mattered most. A recent example was extended by the Brisbane Lions to Joe Daniher, who forewent a final to be at the birth of his first child. Brisbane coach Chris Fagan wholeheartedly endorsed it.

But Wednesday’s allegations shake footy’s self-assuredness to the core. They’re not historical. They’re as recent as seven years ago.

In terms of racism, they add to a body of evidence that includes the hounding of Adam Goodes out of the game in 2015, the systemic problem at Collingwood as detailed by the 2021 Do Better report and just this year disclosure of the bitter taste Hawthorn left in the mouth of Cyril Rioli.

Cyril Rioli in action during the 2015 AFL grand finalCredit:Scott Barbour

These are greats of the game, so how have almost incognito countrymen fared? Now we know about some.

But it’s not just racism. It’s sexism, too. It’s dehumanisation.

Luke Hodge, Hawthorn’s talismanic triple premiership and captain, said Wednesday’s report “dampens” his perspective on those years. That is, he questions his own legacy. That’s enormous.

But it’s bigger than that. The AFL and its clubs, like all sports, carefully curate an image of pastoral responsibility to sit within robust competition. Hawthorn embodied this; it was a club with a winning culture. If the allegations are proven, that’s blown. It was history written by winners.

If proved, culture will again be exposed as an overblown concept in footy generally. Culture is winning and hoping no one finds out how.

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