Australian rules football investigates racism allegations made by Indigenous players

The Australian Football League says it is investigating “very serious allegations” made by Indigenous players who say they were racially abused by a head coach at the Hawthorn Football Club in Melbourne.

A former Hawthorn player has told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) that he was told by the AFL club’s then-coach to terminate his partner’s pregnancy. Three Indigenous families involved at Hawthorn during the same man’s period as coach between 2005-21 have told the ABC they were allegedly bullied and told to choose between their football careers and their families.

The AFL later revealed that Brisbane coach Chris Fagan will take a leave of absence to co-operate with their investigation into allegations about the treatment of Indigenous players at Hawthorn after being named in the ABC report.

Fagan was an assistant coach at Hawthorn between 2008 and 2016.

Indigenous players on Australian rules football teams have often complained of crowd abuse at stadiums, including several star players. But this is the first time that coaching staff at a team has faced serious racism allegations.

Hawthorn earlier this year commissioned an external review into claims of racism at the club during that person’s tenure as coach. The external review document was given to the Hawthorn hierarchy and the AFL’s integrity unit two weeks ago.

“The experiences outlined in the document are extremely serious and require further and full examination,” the AFL said in a statement Wednesday. “The AFL is finalizing a process to investigate the allegations and has sought further details of those who shared their experiences in order to progress its investigation.”

Hawthorn added that the review “raised disturbing historical allegations that require further investigation.”

“Upon learning from these allegations, the club immediately engaged AFL integrity as is appropriate,” a club statement on Wednesday said. “Given the matters raised are confidential, the club will not provide any further comment.”

The ABC reported the document included allegations of key Hawthorn figures demanding the separation of young Indigenous players from their partners. It said one couple was pressured to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of the player’s career.

The player told the ABC a group of coaches including the head coach and his assistant urged to have his partner’s pregnancy terminated, break up with his partner, and move into the home of an assistant coach.

“[He] just leaned over me and demanded that I needed to get rid of my unborn child and my partner,” the player, who was not named, told the ABC.

“I was then manipulated and convinced to remove my SIM card from my phone so there was no further contact between my family and me. They told me I’d be living with one of the other coaches from that night onwards.”

‘These allegations are extremely disturbing’

Hawthorn club chief executive Justin Reeves said the review into claims of historic racism at the club was conducted by external First Nations consultants who did not speak with the two coaches at the center of the racism allegations. Reeves did not name the coaches.

“This process was . . . to speak purely to our First Nations past players and staff,” Reeves said at a media conference later Wednesday. “We had no idea what was to come out of those conversations so we didn’t speak to anyone outside of that group.”

“It’s tough reading, it’s heartbreaking. These allegations are extremely disturbing. We are profoundly disappointed that some of our former players and their families feel like this about their experiences at the club.”

Reeves said he was unaware of the identities of players interviewed as part of the review due to confidentiality agreements.

But Reeves, who was appointed Hawthorn’s chief executive in October 2017, urged the club to face its past.

“Australia has a culture problem historically,” he said. “Like all of us, we focus on every day being better and building a great environment for our club. But like so many institutions, we have to face our history and our past.”

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