The AFL have engaged legal heavy hitter and former Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon to represent the league, ahead of an independent investigation into Hawthorn’s treatment of their Indigenous players.
Gordon, a senior partner at Gordon Legal, has previously acted for the AFL in other legal matters, including when former Magpie Heritier Lumumba instigated legal action against the AFL in the Supreme Court.
His appointment came on a day the federal government’s leading figure on reconciliation blasted the league over its treatment of First Nations players, while Hawthorn chief executive Justin Reeves admitted the claims had been “disturbing”, and it was now “an important time for reflection, listening and learning”.
Pat Dodson has blasted the AFL.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
WA Senator Pat Dodson, who is the government’s special envoy on reconciliation and chair of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, called on the AFL to address systemic racism or risk penalties for a failure to act.
The AFL has this week launched an investigation into allegations of mistreatment of First Nations players at Hawthorn brought to light by an external review at the club.
The review’s report has not yet been released, but the ABC on Wednesday published allegations contained in it, including that the club demanded some First Nations players split from their partners and live separately from their families. In one incident, a player and his partner were allegedly pressured to terminate a pregnancy to further his career, the ABC reported.
Dodson said told the ABC on Friday that he was not across the detail of the report at the heart of the allegations but, if they were true, then they were “horrific”.
“I would have thought that this is a problem for the AFL, that they need to really face up to systemic racism across the clubs and its league,” he said.
“It’s time now that serious penalties, I would think, are incurred for this kind of behaviour by clubs and by individuals. The softly-softly approach is not working, and if the sorts of racist and derogatory ways of dealing with First Nations players is part of a club’s modus operandi, then it should not be tolerated.”
In a letter to members, Reeves said the explosive claims made against former coach Alastair Clarkson and football-department chief Chris Fagan had left the club “profoundly heartbroken”.
“Around two weeks ago we received the results of that work. And as you can now see, some of those stories are disturbing. We are profoundly heartbroken that there are people who feel like this about their experience at our club,” Reeves said.
“Upon receipt of that report, we immediately engaged AFL Integrity – both because it was a recommendation, and because it was the most appropriate next step. From here, those named in the reports would be interviewed and be given the opportunity to respond and tell their story.
“That leads us to where we are today where there were media reports with some of our former players and their families telling their stories publicly. The club will continue to offer support to those who have participated in this process, and their wellbeing remains our priority. We want to assure you that will continue to be the case.
“Some may ask why we are not releasing the actual report, and it is a good question. Many of the people who participated in the report did so on the basis that it would be confidential. We won’t breach that trust. The report also found the current environment is culturally safe. But this is something we should focus our attention on and strive for ongoing improvement. My commitment is that we will continue to do that.
“As you may have now seen, the AFL is commencing a process to investigate the matters fully. We are completely supportive of this and will cooperate. We know that the past few days have been challenging, but we must use this as an opportunity to improve our club and make it the best it can possibly be.”
Clarkson, due to begin as North Melbourne coach on November 1, and Fagan, the Brisbane Lions coach, have taken a leave of absence. Both have denied the claims and have declared they look forward to giving their side of the story. They have also engaged legal counsel.
Four of the families involved in making the claims have engaged legal firm Arnold Bloch Leibler to act on their behalf. The AFL is still finalising who will sit on the independent panel, with industry sources saying there was a strong need for Indigenous representation.
A former Hawks assistant coach gave evidence to the club’s cultural review that sources said supported parts of the Indigenous players’ testimony about their alleged mistreatment. The Age cannot confirm which particular incidents were endorsed, and is not suggesting the assistant coach’s involvement proves any of the allegations.
WA Aboriginal Affairs minister Tony Buti said all AFL clubs needed to have Aboriginal representation at the board level.
“If you look at the participation rates of Aboriginal players in the AFL it far exceeds the number of Aboriginal people in our population; therefore, one would think that to have Aboriginal representation on the board is very, very important,” he said.
Buti echoed calls for all clubs to conduct reviews into the treatment of Aboriginal people in AFL clubs and praised the Fremantle Dockers for their willingness to participate in a code-wide inquiry.
“I think it would be a great idea if all clubs in the AFL did their own internal review, but there may need to be also an external review,” he said.
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