Monday night’s episode of Q&A broadly examined the future of sport in Australia, but the heart of the discussion focused more specifically on our various sporting codes’ failure to fully eliminate racism.
The panel featured interim NRL CEO Andrew Abdo, Richmond Football Club CEO Brendon Gale, sports broadcaster and journalist Tracey Holmes, Australian netball and AFLW star Sharni Layton, and Adelaide United’s Director of Football Bruce Djite.
The same underlying question popped up several times – why, when organisations like the NRL and AFL have consistently said “the right things” about racism, does it still persist?
Mr Djite offered the most compelling answer. He pointed to a “lack of cultural competence” in the hierarchy of Australia’s sporting codes, which has slowed down the rate of progress.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s about racism. I tell you now, if there was an Indigenous person on the AFL Commission, or as AFL CEO, during the time where Adam Goodes was getting racially vilified, it would have had a different reaction. The guy might still be actively involved in the sport,” said the former A-League star.
“If there were more women in high powered positions, entrenched in the sporting game, (women’s sport) would have greater media coverage; it would have greater investment.
“Without the people with the context knowledge – you can read all the content, you can be across it all you like, you can read a thousand books – if you haven’t felt it and don’t have that context knowledge, then you don’t get it. It’s impossible.
“It’s like me trying to understand what it’s like to be a female. I can listen. I can learn. But I can never feel what it’s like. I will never have that context knowledge.
“So while there’s intelligent people, extremely smart people, extremely influential people in the hierarchy, as players, as administrators – if they don’t have the context knowledge, if we don’t entrench these people in the hierarchies of our sports, then change may come. But it will come much slower, with many more regrets, than if those people with those lived experience were in those positions.”
The studio audience was smaller than usual, with coronavirus restrictions still in place, but it still reacted with a warm round of applause.
Mr Djite’s monologue came late in the program, but felt like the perfect answer to the evening’s very first question.
“We all watched what happened to Adam Goodes when he dispelled the silence on racism in the AFL. All the right people said ‘Never again,’” said the questioner, Melissa O’Donnell.
“Yet against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, we’re revisiting the shocking racism and the gaslighting that Heritier Lumumba experienced during his time at Collingwood. And it’s clear that Collingwood still fail to fully comprehend exactly what he is calling out.”
Lumumba, who spent 10 years at Collingwood, has alleged there was a “culture of racist jokes” and behaviour at the club, and neither it nor the AFL had addressed the problem.
“Then you’ve got the case of Latrell Mitchell in the NRL. He’s exceptionally talented, yet the moment he used his position to take a stand on racism and refuse to sing the national anthem, he’s had a target on his back, from fans, from media and even from the NRL,” Ms O’Donnell continued.
Mitchell, one of the most exciting players in the NRL, has been vocal about his pride in his Indigenous heritage. On Australia Day earlier this year, he marched alongside fellow players, calling for the date of the national holiday to be changed.
He has previously claimed NSW selectors “went funny” on him after he chose not to sing the national anthem before a State of Origin match.
“My question is, at what point do the AFL and the NRL see themselves as part of, and active participants in, the structural racism of our system, take full accountability for that, and perhaps even lead us in the repair and the dismantling processes we so desperately need?” Ms O’Donnell asked.
Host Hamish Macdonald gave Mr Abdo the first opportunity to speak.
“Let me first start by saying and acknowledging racism exists. It exists in our society and in sport. There’s no denying that,” the NRL’s interim CEO acknowledged.
“I think if you have a look at what’s happened across not just the AFL and NRL, across society, we have instances where individuals are victimised and we need to do more. Players need to feel safe. They have an opportunity to express themselves and express what they believe in.
“As a code, if we can align and be really united on the inside, then we can run what exists on the outside. What I mean by that is we stand for inclusivity. It’s core to what rugby league is about. Can we do more? Absolutely.”
“What does that look like, doing more?” Macdonald pressed.
“Listening to our players and giving them a platform so they can express themselves,” said Mr Abdo.
“We’re fortunate in that we have an Indigenous Players Advisory Group, the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council. These are people that are helping us understand what the issues are on the ground, and informing us on things we can do to drive change.
“We’ve listened to our players. When the players in the Indigenous All Stars team didn’t sing the national anthem, we thought about it, consulted and felt it was appropriate to not sing it, because it wasn’t an appropriate opportunity to do that.”
Macdonald then threw to Mr Djite, asking why sport administrations had failed to “produce the results” of stamping out racism, despite offering good rhetoric.
“Look, there’s no doubt that racism exists. At times it’s more dormant than others. In this current period, we are in the very divisive phase,” Mr Djite said.
“People are more willing and able to come out and actually say what they’re thinking. At other times, where things are more calm, people have the same thoughts but they’re not articulating them. But the racism is still there.
“I think it starts with education. I really do. It’s only been the last couple of weeks when this Black Lives Matter movement has really come to Australia. And we start talking about Aboriginals and the Indigenous and what they’ve been through.
“I think sport is in a particular place where it’s able to improve society, and society cannot be improved if you are not giving a hand up to help the people who have been left behind. And it’s time for the platitudes to stop and for action to be taken. And for organisations to be judged on the actions they take, not the words that they speak.”
Mr Gale chimed in to stress that it was important to “celebrate the contribution that diversity makes” to Australia’s football codes.
“There is racism here in Australia. Sports aren’t immune. There are racist episodes, and we’ve seen some recently,” he conceded.
“I think sport in this country is a very powerful social and cultural institution that has enormous traction in society. So it gives us an opportunity to shine a light on these issues. So often racism comes from ignorance.
“When we’re talking about this, and talking about what this means and how it impacts our Indigenous brothers and sisters, people become more informed, and I think sport in general and certainly the sport that I’m involved with provides a very powerful platform for us to continue to do that.”
Holmes was up next. Macdonald asked whether she believed Australia really was becoming more informed as a result of Black Lives Matter.
“Look, I do. I think what we’re seeing from, first of all in America, and how it’s reignited a bit of a flame here in Australia for people to be able to say this is not good enough,” she said.
“What we’ve seen happening around the world – the NFL has come out, and let’s remember the whole thin about taking a knee, in its newest form, was first done in the NFL. We know the player who did it has not been employed since.
“The NFL said they think they got it wrong, still without mentioning his name or apologising to him. It’s much in the same tone as the Collingwood player (Lumumba).
“And I think what you have to look at is we’ve been listening to players, we’ve been watching players, we see it in so many of our codes, not just football, we see it in basketball and so many other streams of sport around the country. The players are fantastic.
“They’re highly overrepresented because they are such wonderful athletes. And then what happens? Where do they go? Every time we hear from someone in management, every time we see a coach or assistant coach or the general managers or the board of directors, where are they? We see white players that progress to other areas and into the halls of power, but what our sports bodies say is we’re still listening to the players, and it’s really not good enough.
“I think those other doors have to open to give them a much bigger and powerful voice and influential voice.”
Layton argued that clubs and larger organisations should publicly acknowledge the racism that’s occurred on their watch, and apologise to the players.
“I love seeing the AFL and the NRL taking a knee during the last two games. I wish it didn’t take Black Lives Matter for us to be paying attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and I hope we do continue to use this momentum, but also remember to keep taking action rather than saying all of these words that we’re wanting to represent and change things,” she said.
“We need to be stamping (racists) off social media. We need to be taking away those memberships and definitely not standing for that.
“This is my own personal opinion but I really believe that there needs to be an apology as well, and a public apology, because by doing that – those players that have spoken out have had to be so brave and they have copped so much for such a long time now. For those larger organisations to be able to come out and say this actually did go on and we’re sorry, that is the bravest and courageous thing you can do for those players at this current point in time.”