The football season has started with bumper crowds and the ever-present taint of racism.
The first two rounds have drawn 765,789 fans, the highest season-opener attendance in AFL history, but the headlines have been hijacked by the racial abuse of the young Western Bulldog First Nations’ player, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan.
The abuse continues a disturbing and consistent cycle in football. Racist behaviours are still entrenched within the game and the wider society, despite the efforts of sporting codes to stamp them out.
Ugle-Hagan was racially abused by multiple fans during and after Bulldogs’ second-round loss to St Kilda. The abuse took a clear emotional and mental toll on him, evident in his post-match interview. It was a reminder of racial abuse’s impact on a person’s health and wellbeing.
The abuse was widely condemned by coaches, players, and commentators, but the most powerful response came from Ugle-Hagan’s mother.
She posted on Facebook that the incident was “a reminder of how far we still have to go”, but that “it’s our fate”.
She added, defiantly:
“But we won’t give in, we won’t back down … We’ll stand up tall and never let our spirits drown[.]”
Her defiance was apparent in her son’s actions. Showing that the sporting field can, and should be, more than corporatist “cathedrals of consumption”, Ugle-Hagan channelled former St Kilda great Nicky Winmar. After kicking a goal, he lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin.
Nicky Winmar 🤝 Jamarra Ugle-Hagan pic.twitter.com/XXrncCgZtM
– Triple M Footy (@triplemfooty) March 31, 2023
The goal will fade eventually from memory, but the gesture should haunt us. It’s a reminder that for First Nations’ peoples and other under-represented groups, sport is more than loyalty to a jumper, flag or sponsor.
Despite the efforts of many sporting authorities, sport is, and must remain, a space for political comment and activism.
The AFL condemned the racial abuse on Twitter.
The AFL stands with Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and his family in calling out the racist comments that cause significant hurt and harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Racism is inexcusable and is never ok.
– AFL House (@AFL_House) March 26, 2023
But let’s face it, the AFL has form in this area, and needs to be more decisive.
Under the current CEO Gillion McLachlan, the AFL has increased media rights, introduced women’s football, and stayed afloat during the pandemic. However, it’s failed to adequately address racism.
It failed Adam Goodes, one of Australia’s most decorated sports people. Some clubs have displayed intercultural insensitivity in dealing with First Nations players, and those from migrant backgrounds.
Collingwood’s treatment of Heritier Lumumba comes to mind. Over-the-fence abuse still persists, prompting former First Nations Olympian and Labor politician Nova Peris to call for bans on fans who racially taunt players.
AFL must move beyond tokenism
The AFL must give the same attention to intercultural issues as it does to its financial bottom line, otherwise racist behaviours will persist.
In the post-McLachlan era, it must move beyond marketing tokenistic causes to bolster fan support, to ensuring First Nations players enjoy an interculturally-safe workplace, as well as fans from diverse backgrounds feeling they belong to an inclusive footy community.
This may necessitate implementing life bans for supporters, players and officials who cross the racist line.
It will also require stronger leadership to address the harmful impacts of racist behaviours on individuals and communities.
Incidents faded from view
Between 2020-2022, there were more than 10 racially-motivated incidents involving fans or players at AFL grounds. Each followed a recurring pattern.
Initially, they were widely condemned in “official statements” by clubs and the AFL, and in comments across social and mainstream media outlets.
By the next round of games, however, the incidents had faded from view, only to re-emerge weeks or months later with another bout of racist abuse. AFL and media outrage follow, and the cycle repeats itself.
From an intercultural leadership perspective, creating inclusive communities in the workplace and wider social sporting spaces requires that leaders have congruent beliefs and values that are expressed through their words and behaviours.
Further, leadership of sporting organisations must reflect the wider diversity of Australian society, a point lost on most CEOs.
Leaders must demonstrate a clear understanding of the impact of racism both on the wellbeing and self-worth of the individuals they lead, and the communities they represent.
“I felt pretty proud … going out there with all my mates that supported me throughout a tough week and then to do that in front of everyone.”
Jamarra Ugle-Hagan joined Luke Beveridge in the press conference.#AFLDogsLions pic.twitter.com/TQ3Oxix8Lg
– 7AFL (@7AFL) March 30, 2023
Condemning racist behaviours and practices is an important first step in addressing recurrent incidents. However, clear actions must follow to drive social change within these spaces.
In the absence of strong intercultural leadership from the AFL, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan led from the front. Thirty years after Winmar, he pointed to the AFL’s failures to minimise the racism that not only corrodes football, but also the inclusive and diverse communities we aspire to be.
In doing so, he highlighted football’s cycle of racist abuse. It’s now up to the game’s leaders to follow his lead, and end the cycle that blights the game and our communities.