If you stand up against racism in Australian sport you pay a heavy price | Héritier Lumumba | Sport

Just one week after Sam Newman’s ugly tirade dehumanising George Floyd, he was back at it. This time his target was, once again, Nicky Winmar. Newman and his friends decided they would have fun revising history, and attempted to rewrite the meaning of Winmar famously pointing to his skin in response to racism during a match between St Kilda and Collingwood in April, 1993.

This moment was immortalised in a photo taken by Wayne Lubey; there has never been any doubt about what Winmar meant by the gesture. In the recent documentary Australian Dream, both Winmar and Gilbert McAdam speak emotionally about the horrible, violent and racist threats they received from Collingwood fans on the day.

Winmar’s defiance in the face of hate and his refusal to back down was an inspiration to me and so many others who have tasted the humiliation of racism.

But Winmar’s courageous stand came at a cost. In what should always be remembered as one of the most shameful moments in the AFL’s history, Newman mocked him in blackface on The Footy Show years later. Eddie McGuire barely made an effort to suppress a laugh, and defended Newman as recently as this year, saying he was simply “a product of his time”.

Newman remained one of the unofficial faces of the AFL for another two decades, popularising a brand of crude bigotry and misogyny that went unchecked and unpunished. If anything, this behaviour was rewarded. The use of “humour” to entrench and normalise discriminatory attitudes is insidious; it allows damaging forms of discrimination to be quickly dismissed as “just a joke”.

The dangers of broadcasting this poison as entertainment cannot be overstated. As someone who was subject to such a culture at my own club, I know exactly how damaging it can be.

The famous chorus of the Footy Show’s anthem was It’s More Than A Game. I could not agree more. AFL is central to Australian culture – as an institution, it reflects the values and norms Australia finds acceptable, and has the ability to shape societal attitudes in a profound way.

Newman alone was not the problem. He was propped up by his mates, TV executives, sponsors and ultimately the AFL who knew he was a bankable brand ambassador. His recent departure from Channel Nine was simply too little, too late.

Did anyone stop to think what it meant for Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal children, to see a hero like Winmar degraded like that by some of the most celebrated people in the country? Can such a public act of humiliation be separated from Australia’s ongoing settler-colonial reality?

What more can be said about a culture that was so offended by Goodes’s display of pride in his culture that it turned on him in an instant, hounding him out of the sport? It took the AFL four years to issue an apology, which finally came on the eve of the release of a second major documentary about Goodes’ humiliation and tragic exit from football.

Michael Long took a courageous stand against racism in 1995. McGuire’s claim, in 2019, that Newman is a “product of his time” is little comfort to those of us who have actually had to live with and survive the daily onslaught of racism. It is precisely because men like Newman refuse to grow and move on from “their time” that a legend like Winmar can still be humiliated today.

As I write, the AFL is being consumed by multiple racism scandals. Eddie Betts has spoken passionately about the pain of being vilified online by fans. My great brother Joel Wilkinson has gone public with the story of how his entire career was derailed as a result of refusing to accept racism on the field or from his own teammates. He says his very association with me was enough for him to be blacklisted by recruiters.

Over the years, the AFL has made plenty of PR mileage out of its diversity and inclusion programs. Make no mistake – I am absolutely in favour of opening the sport up to young people from as many diverse backgrounds as possible.

But without an intentional and deliberate approach to addressing the deep-seated issues of racism that exist in the league across the board, these young people are being introduced to a system that does not know how to truly respect, celebrate and protect their difference.

Racism cannot be stopped by simply integrating more non-white people into a white-dominated structure. Anti-racism is the never-ending task of understanding the policies (or lack thereof) that create racial inequities, hostile environments, and which place visible and invisible pressures on those who are non-white.

There is clearly a recurring problem across every facet of this sport, from the AFL to the grassroots. Why are they going to great lengths to deny this? Surely good leadership means a willingness to admit failures, then commit to development? This sport is built on the backs of players who are told to give their all in every moment, to never stop challenging themselves to grow and improve. Why can we not expect the same standard of its administrators?

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