AFL boss open to wider review of historical treatment of Indigenous players

The AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan says the sport should “explore every opportunity to make sure there is a safe environment” for players after Eddie Betts called for all clubs to review their historical treatment of First Nations athletes.

Betts said he was saddened but not surprised to learn of racism claims at Hawthorn, detailed in an independent report commissioned by the club and published by the ABC.

He said some of the allegations reminded him of the stolen generations. They include one player alleging Hawthorn staff told him and his partner to terminate a pregnancy and separate so the player could focus on football.

“This could happen at any football club,” Betts told Fox Footy on Wednesday night. “And I think that every football club should do a review like this.

“Every football club should come out and do an external review, contact the Indigenous players and past Indigenous players and see how that footy club was.”

On Wednesday, McLachlan announced the AFL will create an external independent panel to investigate the “challenging, harrowing and disturbing” allegations, which is expected to take six to eight weeks.

McLachlan told the ABC that he spoke to senior Indigenous players on a call on Wednesday night, including Betts, Shaun Burgoyne, Shane Edwards, Steven May and Neville Jetta.

“I think the players reflected that even if we don’t feel something is occurring or is an issue, that we explore every opportunity to make sure there is a safe environment. I think that message resonated and we’ll continue to talk with the guys about what that might look like,” he said.

“We also talked about the opportunities to be better. It’s a huge impact that we’ve now got an Indigenous liaison officer at every club. But how do we make their job easier? How do we make sure the power structures or culture doesn’t diminish their voice? How do we find better places or better structures or constructs that enable people to be able to speak out if there are issues?

“I think we need representation. These are the conversations I’m picking up with players and others.”

McLachlan said all allegations in the Hawthorn racism report will be “investigated thoroughly and confidentially” during the independent review.

He said the “courageous people” who have come forward will have a “spotlight” on them. “I hope it doesn’t deter them to lean in on this and have that conviction to tell their stories to this independent panel so that we can get to the bottom of this.”

‘It’s very confronting, considering I was there’
Burgoyne, the first Indigenous footballer to play 400 AFL games, said he was shocked to read media reports on Wednesday detailing alleged racism at the Hawks.

“It’s very confronting to be honest, to see that and hear that, because I had no knowledge of those instances ever happening,” Burgoyne told a grand final luncheon in Melbourne on Wednesday.

“I was never involved. I was never asked. This is the first I’ve heard of it.

“So it’s very confronting, considering I was there and I wasn’t involved in any of it. Because I would have helped and I would have definitely been able to hopefully prevent some of those things from happening.”

Burgoyne played for Port Adelaide from 2001 to 2009 then joined the Hawks from 2010 until retiring last year

Alastair Clarkson was Hawthorn’s head coach from 2005 and 2021, while Chris Fagan was an assistant coach and general manager of football at the club from 2008 to 2016, before being appointed Brisbane coach in 2017.

Clarkson, who has released a statement denying any wrongdoing, has delayed starting as North Melbourne’s new coach from 1 November.

Fagan has taken leave as Brisbane coach while the AFL conducts an independent investigation into the claims.

Hawthorn originally commissioned the review after former First Nations Hawks star Cyril Rioli made allegations of racist treatment in April.

The review was performed by external First Nations consultants who did not speak with Clarkson or Fagan.

“This process was … to speak purely to our First Nations past players and staff,” Hawthorn’s chief executive Justin Reeves told reporters on Wednesday.

“We had no idea what was to come out of those conversations so we didn’t speak to anyone outside of that group.”

Hawthorn’s current coach Sam Mitchell, who played for the club between 2002 and 2016, said the ABC report was “enormously troubling”.

“I’m torn in a thousand different directions, to be honest,” he told the same luncheon as Burgoyne.

“I’m very much like everyone else. I got a heads up yesterday that something was coming out.

“And when I woke up and read it this morning I was upset … the word disturbed was probably accurate.”

The furore comes some 18 months after the release of Collingwood’s Do Better report, which revealed a systemic culture of racism at the Magpies, and the Hawthorn report is expected to have a similarly large impact.

The minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, on Wednesday described the allegations as “harrowing”, while former Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge said the news was “a shock to the system”.