RAW: Racism in the AFL a thing of the past?

By Lewis Dowell

A major event in the history of the AFL and its battle against racial vilification is the moment when St.Kilda great Nicky Winmar faced the Collingwood cheer squad and lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin. Winmar and his teammate Gilbert McAdam had both received constant, racist taunts from the supporters throughout the game.

In a speech earlier this year to the UN in Geneva on combating racism in sport, Adelaide Crow’s and AFL great Andrew McLeod credited this event as the moment the AFL was forced to stand up and take notice of racial vilification in the game.

“It wasn’t until 1993 when Nicky Winmar … was racially abused by opposition supporters, and in return, he lifted his jumper pointing to the colour of his skin, which made the AFL sit up and take notice.” Said McLeod.

McLeod went on to say that the day where Indigenous players were vilified by opposition players and their supporters were over, and although the AFL may have been slow to act on the issue in the early 90’s, racial vilification policies and education programs developed in 1995 greatly helped the AFL community combat racism.

However it would seem that 18 years on from Winmar’s famous gesture towards the Collingwood supporters, and 12 years on from the last suspension of an AFL player for racial vilification, racism has once again surfaced in the game.

On Saturday night Bulldogs forward Justin Sherman repeatedly racially vilified Gold Coast Sun’s debutant Joel Wilkinson, 19, who is of Nigerian decent. Sherman reportedly sort out Wilkinson after the game to apologise and has since made an official apology claiming that his actions were “out of character” and that he was “ashamed and embarrassed”.

It could be said that if he was really ashamed, embarrassed and remorseful, it would have been a stronger statement to report himself to the AFL the following day, but the AFL were informed by a formal complaint from the Suns.

Sherman was handed a $5000 fine to be paid to a charity chosen by the Suns, and will volunteer for the Red Dust Role Model program which provides mentoring and support for youth in remote indigenous communities. He has also been given a 4 game suspension, but will be available to play in the VFL.

Considering James Hird was fined $20,000 for criticism of an umpire in 2004 you have to wonder about the AFL’s priorities, as well as the fact that players often receive 3 – 4 match bans for high contact and striking. The fact he is able to continue playing in the VFL is a joke.

I believe that the punishment is too soft, not because I wish for the punishment to act as a deterrent or to make an example of Sherman, but simply because the act of racial vilification deserves more.

In this day and age players should not need to be deterred from racially vilifying opponents, but should just not participate in such behaviour because they know it’s morally, ethically and personally inappropriate, irresponsible and offensive behaviour.

Racism should be held as one of the worst offenses a player can do on the field, higher than criticism of an umpire, higher than high or reckless contact and even higher then striking or brawling.

Since the incident, the media has begun to build up the story of racism in the AFL. The fact that although the AFL claims the game is racism free, it is actually riddled with it. I think this is an exaggeration. I believe that this is an isolated incident from a naïve and ignorant player, that shouldn’t have happened but is now being dealt with. And yes although I previously said the punishment was insufficient, I think it is obvious to all players that behaviour like this is unacceptable and wont be tolerated.

The issue to have come from this though is the issue of racism and racist taunts coming from the crowd. This is a serious issue but to be fair, is a harder issue for the AFL to deal with. Supporters cannot be screened prior to games, and they cannot setup educational institutions and force supporters to attend. Catching out supporters that participate in racist taunts, the majority o the time relies on other supporters viewing and reporting them. However once they are caught the AFL does take a strong line, often barring the supporters from attending games for life.

The AFL hasve also setup text-lines that supporters can use to ‘dob-in’ supporters behaving inappropriately.

The AFL can only deal with official members of their organisation, and with offenders that have been caught in the act. It’s a lot harder for them to educate the wider community.

Unfortunately racism is apparent in our society and community as a whole, and is not just specific to footy or sporting cultures.  The AFL is doing their part to combat racist views in the community.

In the meantime however the AFL still has a way to come in progressing indigenous people into higher levels of their organisation, and into more senior positions in football clubs. In McLeod’s UN speech he pointed out that there are no Indigenous senior coaches, no indigenous representation at board level at any football club and no representation in executive committees. Possibly the next step for the AFL could be looking at a form of affirmative action to progress indigenous players and officials into these positions. Indigenous players make up more than 20% of the entire playing group, it should only be fair that they have proportional representation.

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