AFL in damage control on eve of Grand Final as Hawthorn scandal goes nuclear

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The AFL is in damage control going into the biggest weekend of the season, after a damning report detailed claims of questionable conduct at the Hawthorn Football Club.

In a report published on Wednesday, ABC Sport alleges senior staff at Hawthorn demanded the separation of players, who are First Nations people, from their partners and pressured one player and his partner to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of his career.

The players named have since issued emphatic denials of the allegations.

Other players allege they were made to remove SIM cards from their phones and replace them with new ones in an attempt to cut them off from their partners and make them focus on their football careers.

The reveal has sparked a media storm, with journalists and presenters around the country expressing their shock. Veteran footy journalist Caroline Wilson said Hawthorn’s four premierships between 2008 and 2015 “had been tainted” by the scandal.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has thus spent the week putting out fires in an attempt to divert attention back to the footy field.

McLachlan has since spoken with a group of current and former players including Shaun Burgoyne, Shane Edwards, Steven May, Neville Jetta and Eddie Betts, revealing some were “confronted and challenged” by the fresh racism storm.

McLachlan also said he was “incredibly disappointed” in where the competition is at upon the climax of the 2022 season, referencing past controversies including the Adam Goodes booing saga.

“What was confronting for them — and I think they‘d be happy for me to talk about this — Burgoyne was there right through this period, and was confronted and challenged, he didn’t see any sign of this. I know that was weighing heavily on him,” he said.

“The difficult days, days like yesterday … as I looked into the screens last night … I was incredibly disappointed in where we were. But what you actually do is you relish the opportunity to make change and to lead and to improve.”

McLachlan said he hoped the current scandal wouldn’t deter other players with similar claims from coming forward.

“That’s the challenging part about this, that these courageous people have come forward and now there’s a huge spotlight on them. And 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,” he said.

Former Carlton star Betts, who has been one the AFL’s leading Indigenous voices over the past decade, has also pleaded for the 18 clubs to conduct external reviews into their past treatment of First Nations people.

“It was a tough read, reading that today,” he said.

“Aboriginal people face these issues in many systems, in the education system, the justice system, in the health system. And it always comes back to what I’ve been preaching a lot, and that’s education.

“Every football club should do a review like this. Every football club should come out and do an external review. Contact the Indigenous players, past and present, and see how the footy club was.

“We keep coming back to this. We keep finding ourselves talking about it. You keep hearing me on this show. You know, preaching my heart out, when is it going to stop? When are we going to grow up? When are we going to learn? When are we going to educate ourselves?”

The AFL appears to be constantly picking up the pieces as scandal after scandal breaks out in public.

Earlier this year, former Collingwood star Heritier Lumumba accused the club’s senior figures of “ignorance, arrogance and incompetence” since the damning “Do Better” report was made public in January last year.

In 2021, Collingwood was forced to address an internal club investigation that concluded the club was guilty of fostering “systemic racism” that “has resulted in profound and enduring harm to First Nations and African players”.

The investigation found the club’s responses to instances of alleged racism were “at best ineffective, or at worst exacerbated the impact of the racist incidents”.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire subsequently stood down from his position in February 2021, touting the club’s commitment to social justice in an emotional press conference.

“We are not a racist club, far from it,” McGuire said at the time.

In a damning letter sent to Collingwood’s 12-person anti-racism panel and major sponsors Nike, La Trobe Financial, KFC and Emirates this week, Lumumba explained why he had decided to terminate all negotiations with the club — along with former teammates Leon Davis and Andrew Krakouer.

The 35-year-old claimed that Collingwood “cannot be trusted to pursue genuine reconciliation with its past”, labelling the club’s legal representatives as “disrespectful and culturally ignorant”.

The Herald Sun’s Mark Robinson warned that more tragic details of Hawthorn’s investigation into the treatment of First Nations players could emerge in the coming weeks.

“It left me really sad … that we are in a situation where it’s 2022 and we are hearing allegations against two well-respected people in the game,” he said on AFL 360 this week.

“I’m reading it going – this can’t be true. It has to be made up. And I’m not saying it was made up – but I was so disbelieving. I wanted to not believe.

“Can anyone of us believe that a football coach said to an Indigenous player, ‘Your partner must have an abortion’?”

Originally published as AFL in damage control on eve of Grand Final as Hawthorn scandal goes nuclear