In June 2020 Collingwood Football club commissioned an independent inquiry into reports of structural racism within the organisation. Led by University of Technology Sydney professor Larissa Behrendt, the report was completed and delivered to Collingwood on December 17 last year. Now, after several weeks of unspecified delays, the report has been leaked, forcing the Collingwood hierarchy to publicly reckon with the report’s findings and its implications.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who have followed Collingwood’s journey, on and off the field, during the past two decades, the process has so far been a rocky one.
Club president Eddie McGuire opened yesterday’s press conference by claiming it was a “historic and proud day for the club”. To claim a report that discovered clear evidence of structural racism constitutes a “proud” moment for a sports club is inexplicable at best, at worst a clear and cynical attempt to rewrite the truth. Then again, for McGuire to demonstrate a complete lack of self awareness while talking himself into nonsensical circles to divert accountability is familiar territory for footy fans. After all, this is the man who claimed his likening of Indigenous star Adam Goodes to King Kong was a result of prescription medication.
However, regardless of McGuire’s denial of the facts, the report is now out in the open and could (read: should) have a range of important ramifications for both Collingwood, and the AFL’s attempt to make the sport more inclusive.
Here’s a breakdown of what we know so far.
What is the Do Better report and how did it come about?
Long overdue, the report’s genesis can be traced back to the racist abuse suffered by former Collingwood player Heritier Lumumba during his nine years with the club, from 2005-14. In 2017, the documentary Fair Game was released about Lumumba’s life and career, in which the Australian-Brazilian player detailed his experience at Collingwood, a culture he labelled a “boy’s club of racist and sexist jokes”.
While Do Better was prompted in large part due to Lumumba’s allegations of racism, the 34-year-old chose not to participate in the report, stating he had no desire to work with “the same organisation who have worked to publicly discredit my truth so that they can decide on its value”.
Therefore Do Better does not overtly tackle Lumumba’s allegations, instead offering an introductory note stating, “It is not appropriate to review those allegations without Mr. Lumumba’s involvement.” (The report’s author, Larissa Behrendt, has publicly said Lumumba’s experience deserves a full inquiry of their own.)
Lumumba has supported the report’s findings and many see it as vindication for his sustained critique of the club and its culture. Speaking to the ABC earlier this week, the former player stated, “The report is accurate and I think Larissa Behrendt did a great job of outlining exactly what the systemic issues are.”
On Collingwood and McGuire’s response to the report, Lumumba had a different outlook.
“The report states that when the Collingwood Football Club is confronted with the truth or the facts that pertain to racism and systemic racism, it doubles down, it denies, it doesn’t accept responsibility,” he told the host of ABC’s Radio National Fran Kelly.
“It uses the institutional power to weave a narrative, it has a powerful public relations machine, and it knows that you can use that power to avoid taking accountability for its failings.”
“What I saw yesterday was a clear case of cowardice, a clear case of a football club that is delusional.”
What were its findings?
The 36-page report detailed the damage caused by enabling a culture of casual and structural racism to occur almost unchecked at Collingwood Football club.
“What is clear is that racism at the club has resulted in profound and enduring harm to First Nations and African players” the report reads. “The racism affected them, their communities, and set dangerous norms for the public.”
Central to Do Better’s findings are the revelation of ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’ mechanisms to deal with allegations of racism. Too often, the report stated, this “aggravated, rather than mitigated” the harm caused. Without calling out McGuire directly, the report levied this shortcoming firmly at the hands of the club’s bosses.
“All of this comes back to the leadership of the Collingwood Football Club – particularly its board – and the need for it to set the vision and values of the Club and to drive structural change.”
What did it recommend?
The report made a litany of recommendations for Collingwood to enact, ranging from “reparations, compensation, public apology, and commitments to reform”.
Central to the report’s suggestions is the introduction of an ‘Expert group on anti-racism’, designed “to assist the Collingwood Football Club Board in the implementation of the recommendations and to oversee the evaluation of that implementation”.
Additionally, the need for more formal processes in dealing with allegations of racism was stressed. “There needs to be clearer processes of complaint handling and policies around behaviour to give people who wish to make a complaint an avenue of redress” reads a line from the executive summary. “Without transparency, accountability and consequence, these policies and procedures will not lead to the shifts needed.
While the report focussed on immediate and literal recommendations for change, it also took the opportunity to stress the importance of a cultural reckoning within the club on its values.
“While claims of racism have been made across the AFL, there is something distinct and egregious about Collingwood’s history,” the report reads. “In the thirty interviews undertaken for this review, there was no clear consensus about what the values of the Collingwood Football Club were. Collingwood claims to be guided by four formal values – belonging, commitment, realising potential and caring. There is a gap between what Collingwood Football Club says it stands for and what it does.”
What did we learn?
Ultimately, not that much. After all, the report simply puts in official language what players like Lumumba, Goodes, Nicky Winmar and scores of others have been saying for decades. However, to have these allegations now laid out with the seal of a UTS report, makes them all the more difficult to deny.
What we should also take from this whole ordeal is the power and importance of an apology. Eddie McGuire, in his denial, obstruction and circuitous ramblings during yesterday’s press conference, showed us what not to do.
An apology is an opportunity. A chance to admit fault, comfort those who have been hurt, and learn from one’s mistakes so as to not repeat the same patterns of behaviour.
McGuire and Collingwood were gifted an opportunity with the Do Better report. They could have chosen to take the independent findings with equanimity, put their hands up, and say, ‘We fucked up. We were wrong, and here’s how we’re gonna change.’
In so doing, they would have become the poster child of righteous reform in Australian society. After all the controversy of recent years, they could emerge as being on a new path, a more inclusive one that does not alienate First Nations and African players and fans alike.
Eddie McGuire’s stance yesterday signalled a rejection of that path.
He and Collingwood are far from alone in needing to do better when it comes to handling racism. However, digging in one’s heels, refusing to take even one iota of responsibility and diverting attention elsewhere, only makes matters worse. Significantly worse.
Where do we go from here?
There is, as always, a ray of hope to be found here. The club, and the sport at large, still has an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past.
As the report states, “The Collingwood Football Club will be a better organisation if it can come to terms with its past rather than put it to one side and pretend it can move forward without looking back. Otherwise, the past will continue to throw a shadow over the Club.”
For those looking for more immediate gratification, it is encouraging to see that Collingwood has adopted all 18 recommendations from the report, according to the AFL website. Let’s hope they follow through.
The report can be read in full here.